On this day, 230 years ago, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to his daughter outlining his objection to the use of the bald eagle as an American symbol. According to legend, Franklin believed America was a nation of turkeys.
The year was 1784 and the United States was still sorting out its national iconography. Just after the Declaration of Independence was signed, Franklin had served with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on a panel whose charge was to design the national seal. But the three Founding Fathers each swung and missed, striking out and leaving the decision—in classic congressional form—to be decided at a later date.
When two subsequent committees failed in 1780 and 1782, a design was submitted to Congress by Charles Thomson. The design, a composite of the ideas of the previous three committees, was approved on the same day it was submitted in the summer of 1782. (The seal would be used for the first time in September of that year for use by George Washington on a document "to negotiate and sign with the British an agreement for the exchange, subsistence, and better treatment of prisoners of war.")
While Franklin never publicly objected to the symbol, he certainly remained a man with strong opinions. His legendary objection (which some say is distorted) went a little something like this:
"For my own part 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."
In his letter, Franklin's extremely passionate support for the turkey was based on his view that it was not only a "much respectable Bird," but also "a Bird of Courage" that "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's difficult to imagine what things would be like if Franklin had gotten his way. Would the pardoning of turkeys have become a daily ritual? Would Americans have managed to create a canon of patriotic songs about turkeys? One thing is for sure, without the eagle, America might have lost one of its classic jokes:
A hiker gets stranded during a trek in California and, after a few days, he gets so desperate for food that he manages to kill and eat an endangered California condor. Later, when he is rescued by park rangers, he confesses his crime and is charged with killing an endangered species. The man appears in court and pleads his case and the judge, understanding his plight, agrees to release him. But first the judge asks him: "What does a California condor taste like?" The man thinks about it for a moment and then responds "Kind of like a bald eagle."
Maybe Benjamin Franklin was onto something.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.