A bald eagle sits on a perch in front of an American Flag. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
The majestic bald eagle—the symbol of the United States—has a reputation for being a noble bird that represents strength and might. In Europe, it is associated with royalty, and depictions of the formidable bird of prey adorned the military shields of powerful generals. Despite all this, however, Benjamin Franklin lobbied for the humble turkey to be used in the official seal of the United States instead of the eagle. Franklin, it seemed, saw through the façade of the eagle and believed the bird to be lacking in moral character. Let's look at Benjamin Franklin's failed attempt to name the turkey at the symbol of the newly founded nation.
The signing of the Declaration of Independence. (fineartamerica.com)
Designing the Official Seal: A Tough Job
The Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, establishing the United States of America as a new, independent nation. Naturally, the new country would need all of the accessories a proper country should have, such as a flag, currency, and official seal. It wasn't long after the signing of the Declaration of Independence that the Continental Congress appointed a committee to develop an official seal. On that committee was Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. They came up with a few designs, but not one of them were accepted by the Continental Congress. In fact, the next two committees also failed to produce a winning seal.
Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress. (wallbuilders.com)
Calling in an Artist
As the years dragged on, none of the committees seemed to be able to get the job done. In June 1782, Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress, decided it was time to call in an artist. He took the various designs to his friend, William Barton, a lawyer from Pennsylvania who also had a way with a sketchpad. Thomson pointed out the elements of each design that he liked but left the overall creative work to Barton. It was Barton who drew an eagle clutching an olive branch in one talon and 13 arrows in another. When he presented his design, he explained that the eagle represented unlimited freedom. Most of the members of the Continental Congress loved his design ... but not everyone.
Benjamin Franklin really didn't like eagles. (medium.com)
Franklin Besmudged the Eagle
According to legend, Benjamin Franklin protested the use of the bald eagle as a symbol for the United States and suggested a turkey instead. In a letter Franklin wrote to his daughter after the fact, we can see a glimpse into Franklin’s thought process. Franklin called the eagle a "bird of bad moral character." He noted that the eagle is a lazy bird prone to bullying, claiming to have often witnessed eagles perched in tree tops watching as other birds worked to catch a fish. Once a bird secured his catch, the eagle swooped in to steal it from him. Franklin even called the bald eagle a "rank coward," observing that smaller birds frequently attack the eagle and force him away.
Smaller birds can drive away an eagle. (news.nationalgeographic.com)
A Bird Expert Agreed with Franklin
John James Audubon was born too late to help Benjamin Franklin with his protest against the bald eagle. Born in 1785, Audubon became America's foremost ornithologist and naturalist from the 1820s to 1850s. A gifted artist, Audubon studied and painted many of the birds native to North America based on his observations of the birds in their natural habitat. Audubon agreed with Franklin's assessment of the bald eagle as a coward and a bully. His opinion, however, came too late.
For Ben Franklin, the turkey was a noble and honest bird. (nwtf.org)
Franklin and the Turkey
Instead of the bald eagle, Franklin suggested the turkey be used in the official seal of the United States. Although the turkey did not have the regal reputation of the eagle, Franklin explained that it was a "brave and honest" bird. As a bird only found in North America, he felt it was a more fitting symbol of the new world, one that didn’t rely on preconceived European connotations. Franklin also called the turkey a "respectable and courageous" bird, writing that a turkey "would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards, who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on." Unfortunately, none of these assertions, regardless of their veracity, stop turkeys from looking like that.
The eagle is on the official seal of the United States. (statesymbolsusa.org)
The Bald Eagle Wins
Despite the views of Benjamin Franklin, the bald eagle beat out the turkey to become the symbol of America. Today, the eagle not only appears on the official seal of the United States but on coins, flags for the military, and more. Piggybacking on the reputation that the eagle had in Europe, Americans equate the bird with power and freedom, while the turkey, despite the virtues Franklin showcased, is seen as a silly, stupid, and comical bird. It is strange to think that such a bird could have been a symbol of America, but to be fair, it would also have been hilarious.