Let’s Talk Turkey: The Debate Behind Our Nation’s Great Seal
Countries throughout the world use animals to symbolize their nation’s values. America is clearly no different; in fact, each of our states boasts their own state animal, such as Pennsylvania’s white-tail deer. But one animal reigns supreme across the United States, as evidenced by its placement on our Great Seal. The bald eagle is famously the face of America and has symbolized our country since its inception. Today we’ll explore how the bald eagle came to hold such a weighty mantle in American history and entertain the argument for a more humble bird to adorn our nation’s seal.
Who Created the Great Seal?
After the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the Continental Congress assigned a committee to select and design the United States’s official national seal. This committee was composed of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. All three men had different ideas of what the seal should adorn, and none of them included an eagle.
The design they eventually agreed on featured two women (symbolizing “Liberty”) holding a shield that represented the states while a pyramidal eye floated above the shield. Unfortunately for these patriotic men, the members of Congress did not like their creative contribution, citing that they were not inspired enough by the design. After a few rounds of revisions, they went to William Barton, a lawyer from Philadelphia who was also a talented artist. He created a new design featuring a golden eagle, and can directly be credited for the eagle clutching an olive branch in one talon, and thirteen arrows in the other.
At this time, our newfound country was at war with England. The golden eagle was not only found in America but was very common in Europe as well. Leaning into their patriotism, federal lawmakers required that the bird used on the seal could be an eagle, but it must be an American bald eagle. On top of it being a native bird, the aggressive appeal of the bald eagle helped seal the deal during this time of war. Nearly ten years later, the new seal we know today was approved in 1782.
Benjamin Franklin's Letter to His Daughter
Years after this, when the Treaty of Paris was signed ending the war with Great Britain, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to his daughter back to the colonial states showing his disapproval of the bald eagle.
"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,” he said in the opening of his letter. “ 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.” He ended his letter with these closing remarks about the turkey:
"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... 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."
The debate between the turkey and bald eagle is one that is still discussed today, especially by avian aficionados. The biggest misconception about this debate is, of course, Benjamin Franklin's remarks about the turkey and our nation’s bird. In his letter, one could infer that he’s calling for the turkey to become our nation’s symbol, but he simply floated the idea of what could be. Franklin never stated that he’d like to see the turkey as the national bird, neither in his letter nor publicly.
The Franklin Institute surely loves this time of year, though, when the annual avian contention happens throughout the country. Citing the letter written to his daughter, it’s no longer a question of whether or not Franklin was serious about the turkey replacing the bald eagle. However, it's fun to hear the points debated between the two, especially if you’re into conversations about birds.
If you or your clients enjoy a healthy debate on birds and their importance, why not find real estate in the homelands of Pennsylvania's state bird, the ruffed grouse? This 4 bed, 3 bath property near the woods should provide adequate space for bird-watching or bird-debating, whatever fits your fancy.
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