Benjamin Franklin Disses the Bald Eagle (1784)

The Bald Eagle is our nation’s symbol.  But Benjamin Franklin didn’t like it.  Or so he wrote to his daughter, Sally Bache, in a letter on January 26, 1784.

Designing the national seal for the newly formed United States of America was a serious concern.  So serious that a committee to create the design was formed on July 4, 1776, on the heels of passage of the Declaration of Independence.  The committee had three members—Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.  Each of them offered a design that featured a classical theme—Moses standing by the shore (Franklin), the children of Israel in the wilderness (Jefferson), and the “Judgement of Hercules” (Adams).  Despite agreeing on the Declaration of Independence, they gave up on designing the great seal.  Two later congressional committees, in 1780 and 1782, also failed to agree on what the seal should look like.

Benjamin Franklin didn’t much like the Bald Eagle (photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service)

After the failure of the third committee, the Secretary of Congress, Charles Thompson, took up the challenge.  He submitted a suggestion for the design, without drawing it, that featured an “American Eagle” as the centerpiece of the front side of the Seal.  The design concept was approved in June, but only drawn and struck in September, 1782.  The eagle was drawn as a Bald Eagle, and the rest is history.  The Great Seal of the United States has not been altered since.

But that didn’t mean Benjamin Franklin had to like the idea that a Bald Eagle was to be our national symbol.  In his letter to his daughter, Franklin first denounced the character 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 then goes on to nominate a better bird for the honor—the Wild 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.”

Franklin preferred the Wild Turkey as the national bird (photo by Dimus)

Regardless of which bird you prefer—Bald Eagle or Wild Turkey—we can be proud of the role that conservation has played in making both abundant for us today.  Both species were nearly extinct in 1900, from overhunting and habitat loss.  We passed laws to protect all birds from commercial hunting in the early 1900s.  We began restoring Wild Turkey habitat in the 1930s and then reintroduced birds around the country from remnant West Virginia populations.  And in the 1970s, we passed laws that removed DDT and other pesticides that impacted Bald Eagle reproduction.  Today, the Bald Eagle is off the endangered species list, but still protected as our national symbol.  The Wild Turkey is so abundant that carefully regulated hunting seasons now occur throughout the U.S.

References:

Chandler, Adam.  2014.  A Nation of Turkeys:  Ben Franklin’s Crusade Against the Bald Eagle.  The Atlantic, January 26, 2014.  Available at:  https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/01/nation-turkeys-ben-franklins-crusade-against-bald-eagle/357393/.  Accessed January 28, 2018.

GreatSeal.com. First Great Seal Committee – July-August 1776.  Available at:  http://greatseal.com/committees/firstcomm/index.html.  Accessed January 28, 2018.

Stamp, Jimmy.  2013.  American Myths:  Benjamin Franklin’s Turkey and the Presidential Seal.  Smithsonian, January 25, 2013.  Available at:  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/american-myths-benjamin-franklins-turkey-and-the-presidential-seal-6623414/.  Accessed January 28, 2018.

This Month in Conservation

May 1
Linnaeus Publishes “Species Plantarum” (1753)
May 2
“Peter and The Wolf” Premieres (1936)
May 3
Vagn Walfrid Ekman, Swedish Oceanographer, Born (1874)
May 4
Eugenie Clark, The Shark Lady, Born (1922)
May 5
Frederick Lincoln, Pioneer of Bird Banding, Born (1892)
May 6
Lassen Volcanic National Park Created (1907)
May 7
Nature’s Best Moms
May 8
David Attenborough Born (1926)
May 9
Thames River Embankments Completed (1874)
May 10
Birute Galdikas, Orangutan Expert, Born (1946)
May 11
“HMS Beagle” Launched (1820)
May 12
Farley Mowat, Author of “Never Cry Wolf,” Born (1921)
May 13
St. Lawrence Seaway Authorized (1954)
May 14
Lewis and Clark Expedition Began (1804)
May 15
Declaration of the Conservation Conference (1908)
May 16
Ramon Margalef, Pioneering Ecologist, Born (1919)
May 17
Australian BioBanking for Biodiversity Implemented (2010)
May 18
Mount St. Helens Erupts (1980)
May 19
Carl Akeley, Father of Modern Taxidermy, Born (1864)
May 20
European Maritime Day
May 21
Rio Grande Water-Sharing Convention Signed (1906)
May 22
International Day for Biological Diversity
May 23
President Carter Delivers Environmental Message to Congress (1977)
May 24
Bison Again Roam Free in Canada’s Grasslands National Park (2006)
May 25
Lacey Act Created (1900)
May 26
Last Model T Rolls Off the Assembly Line (1927)
May 27
A Day for the birds
May 27
Rachel Carson, Author of “Silent Spring,” Born (1907)
May 28
Sierra Club Founded (1892)
May 29
Stephen Forbes, Pioneering Ecologist, Born (1844)
May 30
Everglades National Park Created (1934)
May 31
The Johnstown Flood (1889)
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