Benjamin Franklin’s Bizarre Symbology. Did He Really Admire the Turkey?

What to eat, drink, and think.
Nov. 21 2013 12:04 PM

Did Benjamin Franklin Really Say the National Symbol Should Be the Turkey?

You have got to see his original design.

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When Franklin served on the committee with Jefferson and Adams, however, he proposed something much harder to draw: Moses standing on a shore, backlit by rays from a pillar of fire, while an Egyptian pharaoh and soldiers drown—in an uncomfortable level of detail—in waves of the parted Red Sea. Perhaps a little aggressive for a Great Seal, the proposal was rightly dismissed.

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Courtesy of U.S. Diplomacy Center/Wikimedia Commons

Franklin’s lament of the choice of bald eagle comes from a letter he wrote in 1784. He was remarking upon the medal of the Society of the Cincinnati, which representatives of the new nation were taking to France to bestow upon those who had helped in the American Revolution. The medals depicted a bald eagle that some people thought looked more like a turkey. The suggestion sent Franklin into a thorough drubbing of the eagle’s merits as a symbol. He called it “a Bird of bad moral Character” that “does not get his Living honestly.”

You may have seen him perch’d on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk [Osprey]; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
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Sick burn, Franklin! Stealing food out of a baby’s mouth! Got anything else?

Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District.

Bam! Franklin is being pretty selective with his facts, though. While, yes, bald eagles will steal food from ospreys and eat carrion, they’re excellent fishermen. Additionally, birds of prey—including hawks and owls—are constantly being harassed by smaller birds. In fact, birders know to follow the sound of scolding birds in order to find these larger birds.

What about turkeys, Ben?

For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. He is besides, tho’ a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.

I am in agreement on all points. Turkeys are indeed native to the United States, are a little vain and silly, and are not to be messed with. But do we really want our national symbol to be something we cook and eat every Thanksgiving? Even in Franklin’s time, it would have been wrong to cover our flag with gross-looking neck wattles.

Did Franklin write that he preferred the turkey over the bald eagle as the national symbol? Yes. Was he serious? I’m not so sure. In addition to the contradictory evidence about the rattlesnakes and his drowning-Egyptians proposal for the Great Seal, and the fact that he had elsewhere written that eagles were “an Emblem of Victory,” there’s the not-insignificant matter of to whom he wrote the famous letter. Was it to Congress, formally requesting a new Seal? No. Was it to Thomas Jefferson, to commiserate over their failed proposals? No. It was to his daughter, Sally Bache. Thus, I think Franklin’s words should be taken with the same grain of salt that I take when my dad emails me after the Patriots lose to say that Tom Brady should be traded.

Of course, the bald eagle won out over the turkey, the phoenix, and Hercules as the star of the Great Seal. Despite the slanders of our most beloved Founding Father, the bird is strong, powerful, and impressive: a fitting symbol of America. Now if we can just learn to live with what it truly sounds like.

Nicholas Lund lives and birds in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Birdist. Follow him on Twitter.

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