“OK, is everyone good on this Declaration of Independence thing? Anyone need clarification on the ‘all men are created equal’ bit? No? Great, now let’s get down to some serious business: What should be our new national symbol? All those in favor of the bald eagle say ‘Aye!’ ”
That’s how I wish it went down, but that’s not how it went down.
The choice to include the bald eagle in the Great Seal of the United States was made after years of the kind of congressional congestion that remains a defining characteristic of the body. As you might expect, it started with a committee. The Continental Congress assigned the task of designing the seal to the Founding Father dream team of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams on July 4, 1776, just after signing the Declaration of Independence.
Each of the men submitted a proposal, but their designs were awful—blandly allegorical and pedantic. Adams submitted a painting depicting a young Hercules choosing between “the flowery path of self-indulgence” and the “rugged, uphill way of duty to others.” Jefferson submitted an image involving the children of Israel in the wilderness, trailed by a cloud and a pillar of fire. The committee failed, and the Congress agreed in August 1776 to let the proposed designs “lie on the table.”
A second committee was formed in 1780 but also failed to produce a worthy design, as did a third committee in 1782. Exasperated, Congress turned the duty over to its secretary, Charles Thomson, an orphan who had risen to become the “Samuel Adams of Philadelphia” (not to be confused with Slate’s Sam Adams of Philadelphia or the Samuel Adams brewed near Philadelphia). By late 1782, Thomson succeeded where all others had failed, producing a description immediately accepted by Congress. Thomson submitted a description only, though, not a drawing—probably because his sketches looked like something doodled on the back of my middle school notebook.
The most famous story to come out of the Great Seal ordeal is that Franklin preferred the wild turkey to the bald eagle. This story has more truth to it than some others about Franklin (forget everything you’ve heard about the kite-flying experiment), but it’s not so simple.
An eagle first appeared in a Great Seal proposed by William Barton of the 1782 committee. Barton’s avian-centric design (it also includes a dove and a phoenix) depicted an all-white eagle of a kind that does not exist in nature. Thomson’s description, however, specified “an American Eagle on the wing & rising proper.” Though golden eagles are also present in North America, “American Eagle” meant bald eagle, a common sight in the Colonies.
Before and after his time on the first Great Seal committee, Franklin had a number of ideas for the emblem of the United States. In an anonymous letter to the Pennsylvania Journal in 1775, Franklin pondered the virtues of using the rattlesnake as the coat of arms of America. His assessment was perhaps overthought—Franklin recognized both that a rattlesnake “never begins an attack, nor, once engaged, ever surrenders” and that rattlesnakes huddle together in winter for warmth, just like Americans do. (I guess?) Though it didn’t make it onto the Great Seal, Franklin’s rattlesnake comparison and the related “Don’t Tread on Me” slogan and other symbols have been in the limelight in recent years.
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