The Great Seal of the United States of America was adopted by Congress on June 20, 1782. The seal’s most striking feature was the American Bald Eagle at its center. But while the majestic white-headed headed raptor has now become synonymous with American bravery and willpower, at least one of our founding fathers had a different symbol in mind.
In early 1784 the great statesman, inventor and thinker Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to his daughter Sarah Bache and shared his feelings about our young country’s new symbol. Although Franklin only shared his thoughts with his daughter, his personal views regarding the American Bald Eagle went on to become part of American legend.
While writing to his daughter from France on January 26, 1784, Franklin mused about the appropriateness of using America’s Bald Eagle to symbolize the “brave and honest Cincinnati of America Society” which had been recently formed by officers who had served in the American Revolutionary War.
At the time of his letter to his daughter Franklin was the United States’ ambassador to France. He had just received a newly minted seal of office which included the American Eagle design. The eagle reportedly drew snickers from the French because it was said to look more like a turkey. The embarrassingly cast bird caused Franklin’s naturally inquisitive mind to compare and contrast the American Eagle and the American Turkey as symbols for the United States.
In his letter to Sarah, who Franklin called “Sally”, Franklin lamented the selection of the American Bald Eagle to symbolize the new country that he had played such an important role in forming:
“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 Labour of the Fishing Hawk; 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.”
“With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. 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. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country…”
True to the innovative spirit that he has come to represent in American folklore, Franklin had already suggested several other symbols before the American Eagle became ensconced on the Great Seal.
In a 1775 letter published in a colonial magazine, Franklin argued the case for the rattlesnake as the appropriate symbol of “the temper and conduct of America.”
In 1776, as an official member of the Congressional committee appointed on July 4th to design the Great Seal, Franklin suggested a scene depicting Moses and Pharaoh. The Great Seal committee liked Franklin’s idea but only to the extent that they recommended it for the reverse side of the Great Seal.
Like all large raptors, Bald Eagles are often chased by smaller birds trying to protect their young. Franklin’s observation of a Bald Eagle either ignoring or retreating from mobs of smaller birds may have led to him to perceive that that Bald Eagle was “lacking of courage.”
While Franklin never formally proposed the American Turkey as adornment on America’s Great Seal, other birds were considered in preliminary designs including a two-headed eagle, a rooster, a dove, and a “phoenix in flames.”
The American Turkey also seems to have been overlooked by the county’s first settlers.
Although the Mayflower delivered the Pilgrims to the shores of what would come to be known as Massachusetts on December 11, 1620, there is no solid evidence of a turkey finding its way to the community table that first Christmas. In fact, the Pilgrims didn’t celebrate Christmas – even until the middle of the nineteenth century, Christmas was just another workday in the northeastern states.
Add the fact that the newly arrived settlers had to wait a full year in order to give thanks for their first harvest surely pushes back the timeframe of the turkey’s appearance as the symbol of plenty in America.
But despite American Turkey’s absence from the Great Seal and a slow start in gaining a foothold in American tradition, the bird has more than made up for its early lapse since then and has now managed to secure an important place in American history.
Long before Christopher Columbus reached the New World, the Aztecs reportedly had domesticated a wild game bird that they called huexolotl. The huexolotl – that we would later call the American Turkey – was so important to the Aztecs as a food source that the Indians regarded the bird as a god.
The Aztecs even celebrated two religious festivals each year in honor of the turkey.
Every Thanksgiving, each Christmas for many, millions of roasted, plump turkeys adorn holiday tables across the United States. And as any school-aged child will point out, the American Turkey’s prominence in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is second only to the appearance of Santa Claus and his reindeers.
Were Benjamin Franklin with us today he might be more than a bit puzzled by our annual tradition of killing the “noble turkey” that he viewed so favorably. Frankin’s letter to daughter Sally continued:
“I am on this account, not displeas’d that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turk’y. For in Truth the Turk’y is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America…. He is, (though a little vain and silly, it is true, but not the worse emblem for that,) 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.”
It seems that the turkey has made its way into American hearts through the dinner table rather than the flag. In the spirit of Thanksgiving let us God bless America – then pass me a turkey leg.
CDN Editor: This article is adapted from information found at http://www.greatseal.com/symbols/turkey.html