J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, November 25, 2011

Franklin: “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen”

As long as I was writing about Benjamin Franklin and turkeys, I thought I’d look into the oft-repeated statement that he preferred the turkey to the bald eagle as a symbol of the new republic.

That came from a letter to his daughter, Sally Bache, written from France on 26 Jan 1784. Franklin had just received news of the Society of the Cincinnati, and he didn’t really care for it. Most of his letter was about “the absurdity of descending honors.” As for the Cincinnati “ribbands and medals,” Franklin called them “tolerably done,” but then went on to repeat other people’s criticisms.

One of those complaints concerned the eagle that formed the basis of the medal. (The example shown here belonged to Gen. Henry Knox.) Franklin reported, “Others object to the Bald Eagle as looking too much like a Dindon or Turkey.” Derived from “d’Inde” or “from the Indies,” “dindon” was the French word for “turkey.”

Thoughts of eagles and turkeys launched Franklin into a comparison of their symbolic qualities:
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. . . .

I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. Eagles have been found in all Countries, but the Turkey was peculiar to ours. He is besides, though a little vain & 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.
Franklin’s understanding of bald eagle behavior left a lot to be desired, according to that bird’s fans. But he liked drawing political lessons from an animal’s supposed habits, as in this letter about rattlesnakes (probably).

While people often quote Franklin’s words in regard to the Great Seal of the United States, he wasn’t discussing that depiction of the eagle. He’d made other suggestions about a U.S. seal back when he was a member of the Continental Congress, but never wrote publicly about the design eventually adopted. This family letter wasn’t published until decades after his death.

I’m therefore inclined to think Franklin offered his turkey suggestion mostly as a joke, like his proposal of daylight saving time the same year.

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