The choice of the eagle as our national symbol did not please everyone, especially since the eagle was traditionally an aristocratic and military symbol as well as a republican one. Most famously, in a 1784 letter to his daughter, Sarah Bache, Benjamin Franklin derided the eagle:
I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as 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 perch’d 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 and robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy.
The eagle, Franklin continued, “is a rank coward: The little king bird not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district.” In contrast, “the turkey is … a much more respectable bird and withal a true original native of America … He is besides, tho’ a little vain and 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.”
Scholars disagree as to whether Franklin was joking. Certainly his style was playful, and historians have noted that Franklin had used the image of an eagle in various works he printed, both before and after it was adopted by Congress for the Great Seal of the United States, which was stamped on official documents.
Historian Lester Olson has argued that Franklin was completely serious. Olson noted that in Franklin’s earlier images the eagle represented not the United States but a predatory Great Britain. And his later uses of the image were on publications of official documents, which meant he had no choice in the matter.
Why didn’t the turkey fly?
The process that put the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States began on July 4, 1776. Having decided America would be independent, the Continental Congress needed a seal. Congress appointed a committee of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Franklin, all three of whom had also served on the committee to draft a declaration of independence.
Six years and two committees later, on June 20, 1782, Congress adopted the Great Seal, including the eagle.
The design was the work of Charles Thomson, the secretary of Congress, who drew from the work of all three committees and in particular the work of William Barton, a lawyer and artist who the third committee used as a consultant. Thomson and Barton and members of Congress knew the eagle was a symbol associated with the Roman Republic, and they were eager to emphasize their own commitment to republicanism.
Franklin might have been somewhat mollified by the particular image Congress endorsed in 1782. “Others object to [it],” he wrote his daughter, “as looking too much like a … turkey.”