Every Thanksgiving this controversy comes up; should our national bird and symbol be the Bald Eagle with its strength and majesty, but also other less desirable traits, or as Benjamin Franklin implied, the Wild Turkey?
On July 4, 1776, the day that representatives of the 13 colonies boldly signed the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, they also named a committee to create a national seal. It seems to me they might have had more urgent issues at hand, but apparently a unifying symbol of power was important to them. Nevertheless it took 6 years and 3 different committees before the final design by Charles Thomson was adopted in 1782.
The Bald Eagle, the central element of the final design, was only added to the last version of the seal. The initial committee was made up of the patriots Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. Franklin suggested the seal contain a scene from Exodus with Moses leading his people to the Promised Land. Jefferson favored a depiction of the Children of Israel in the wilderness, while Adams pushed for a painting called the “Judgement of Hercules” depicting the choices of a quick and easy path, versus the more difficult path to glory.
A second committee of lesser knowns came up with a simpler flag-like design and a seated Lady Liberty, but it still contained no bird. A third committee finally included a bird, but it was a rooster perched on a crest! Sanity finally prevailed and the bird was changed to a generic eagle at first, and then to a Bald Eagle. It holds 13 arrows in the talons on one side and an olive branch on the opposite side, symbolizing the preparedness for war along the desire for peace.
So what about Ben Franklin’s objection to the eagle? In 1783 the Society of Cincinnati was founded to preserve the ideals and fellowship of the officers of the Continental Army. It also chose the Bald Eagle as its insignia, and it was this, and not the new national emblem, that led to Franklin’s famous comments in a private letter to his daughter. “For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead tree near the river where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fish hawk; and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish and is bringing it to its nest for the support of its mate and young ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.”
“He is therefore by no means a proper emblem of the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven off the Kingbirds from our country…I am on this account not displeased that the figure…looks more like a turkey, for the turkey is in comparison a much more responsible bird…He is besides, a little vain and silly, a bird of courage and will not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm with a red coat on.”
Anatole Kovarsky creatively envisioned what our national seal with a turkey would like on a New Yorker cover in 1962. What do you think?
So what’s my preference? You may have noticed that I have no turkey photos suitable for posting. I find the bird somewhat shy and elusive, usually seen in small flocks scratching for food at a great distance along the edge of a hardwood forest or field. It is certainly not an attractive species and I agree with Franklin’s “silly” but wonder at his “courageous” modifier. Interestingly both birds have fallen on various hard times and their survivals’ threatened. The turkey was hunted out of much of its range but reintroduced successfully in the 1940’s, and is now found in all the lower 48 states. The eagle suffered from habitat loss in the 1800’s from the clearing of the forests, and then was close to extinction in the 20th century before we learned the link between DDT, calcium metabolism and soft eggshells. Since DDT was banned in 1972 it has made a dramatic comeback, very evident in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere.
Okay, the Bald Eagle has some issues, but who among us is perfect? The dramatic appearance of that dark brown body contrasting with the snow white head and tail and the golden yellow of its beak, legs and talons is a thing of beauty. The impressive size and regal bearing, with those piercing eyes and powerful beak certainly send a message. The majestic sight of a Bald Eagle in flight will always bring on a thrill. Sorry Ben, I think we got this one right.