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The Bald Eagle: America’s Bird, Despite Franklin’s Best Efforts

Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be the bird that symbolizes freedom – But Washington got his way instead.

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The American symbol of freedom could have been a Turkey – if Founding Father Benjamin Franklin had his way. As he argued:

“For a truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America . . . a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards, who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on.”

But it was the nation’s first president, General George Washington, who got his way instead. Shortly after the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress set Franklin, Washington, and John Adams the task of designing the new nation’s seal. They could not come up with a design that pleased the Congress and the task was then signed to two separate committees, who also failed to delight the congressional body. In mid-June 1782, the work of all three committees was then given to the Secretary of the Congress, Charles Thomson. Picking and choosing the best design elements from the three selections, Thomson chose the eagle for which Washington was pushing. Washington, however, did not design the eagle. Rather, it was a Pennsylvania lawyer with artistic talent, William Barton.

On June 20, 1782, the American Bald Eagle was chosen as the emblem for the official seal of the new United States of America. If one scrutinizes the seal, you will notice the eagle is facing front, outstretched donning a breast plate with thirteen perpendicular red and white stripes adjacent to a blue field with the same number of stars. His right talon clutches an olive branch, his left a bundle of thirteen arrows. In his beak is a scroll inscribed with the motto: “E Pluribus Unum,” meaning “out of many, one.”

The Eagle has held a place of reverence in the heart of Americans for well over 200 years. Yet by the 1970s, the Bald Eagle was becoming a rare species in the home of the brave. In the early and middle 20th century, the Bald Eagle was near extinction – ravaged by pesticides, habitat loss, and poaching.

In 1930 the magazine Popular Science said the eagles had been diminished so much that soon they would “be seen only on coins and the coat of arms of the United States unless drastic action” was taken to preserve them. Federal protections ensued, including the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which prevents any disruption or disturbance of the birds or their habitats. By 2007, after government’s assistance, the eagles were finally taken off the endangered list.

The Audubon Society has released new counts of the species and can account for more than 30,000. And you can find the Bald Eagle in every U.S. state with the exception of Hawai’i.

The United States is represented by the seal: Strength, protection, and inclusion. The turkey may have been all of those things, but the eagle flew high, mighty, fierce, and proud.

Sarah Cowgill

National Columnist at and Sarah has been a writer in the political and corporate worlds for over 25 years. As a sought-after speech writer, her clients included CEOs, U.S. Senators, Congressmen, Governors, and even a Vice President. She’s worked as Contributing Editor at Scottsdale Life, a news reporter for the Journal and Courier, and guest opinion political writer for numerous publications nationwide. A born storyteller, Sarah has published a full-length book and is currently finishing a quirky, sarcastic, second novel.

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