Try to picture in your imaginations, Buzzkillers, the Great Seal of the United States of America. Can you see it? If you can’t, pull out a one-dollar bill and have a look. There is a bald eagle in the center, clutching arrows in one of its talons, and a laurel leaf in the other. First displayed publicly in 1782, and printed on the reverse side of every US dollar bill since 1935, the Great Seal is supposed to represent the dignity and fortitude of the nation. And the bald eagle has been one of the most frequently-displayed symbols of the country ever since.

One of the legendary stories that appear and re-appear in email chains (as well as from your nutty great uncle who’s been over-served wine at Thanksgiving dinner) is that no less a luminary and Founding Father than Ben Franklin thought that the bald eagle was an improper choice as the national bird and a national symbol. Franklin preferred the more “dignified” turkey, and tried to convince Founding Fathers to agree. Apparently they thought Ben was a senile old sentimentalist, and so they ignored him.

But is any of that legend true? Did Ben Franklin, in all of his sagacity, really suggest the turkey as one of the most important American national emblems? Well, kind of, but not exactly.

Benjamin Franklin was well known for his humor, wit, and ironic insight. On January 26th, 1784, after it was clear that the eagle was to be the national bird, Franklin wrote a letter to his daughter. In this letter, he opined that the eagle was actually “a rank coward” and “a bird of bad moral character.” He apparently based these musings upon his observations of eagles in nature. Specifically, he noticed that eagles stole food from smaller birds, and that these smaller birds could yet often be seen chasing eagles away without too much trouble.

Franklin also observed, with apparent irony, that the eagle on the Great Seal looked a lot like a turkey, which, he wrote, “…is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and … a true original Native of America.”

Franklin continued by observing that the turkey, “though a little vain & silly,

[is] 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.”

It is fairly obvious that Franklin’s observations and opinions in this letter to his daughter were not altogether serious. For one thing, he only mentioned the turkey as a candidate for our national bird in this one private letter – a rather odd way for an experienced statesman to take his stand on a weighty issue. Also, Franklin did publicly suggest a competing design for the Great Seal, but his idea depicted a confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh, not a turkey. In fact, it did not include any birds at all.

So, aside from Franklin’s humorous letter to his daughter, how did this myth really gain momentum? It may have had something to do with the November 24, 1962 illustration on the cover of The New Yorker magazine, which depicted the Great Seal of the United States with a turkey instead of an eagle. Franklin’s letter, quoted above, may have inspired The New Yorker’s humor. I suspect that it was just part Thanksgiving fun that year.

But, somehow, a connection was made with Franklin’s earlier praise of the turkey, that “respectable bird, a true original native of America.” And that, Buzzkillers, is how myths are hatched.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Buzzkill Bookshelf