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Did Benjamin Franklin really want the turkey to be America’s national symbol, not the Bald Eagle?



… Ben did lambast the Bald Eagle, but was he serious


The letter from Benjamin Franklin to his daughter centuries ago was quite clear. He was not happy with the Bald Eagle being selected as the national symbol of the new country that was being formed after the American Revolution.

However, some historians insist that Ben was being facetious.


That, however, was not how the letter sounded.


So, what are the facts?

The letter


The story goes back to the Founding Fathers and their desire to have a Great Seal for the newly-formed United States of America. The Continental Congress asked Franklin along with two future presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, to find a seal for the new country.

So, was Ben serious when he wrote this to his daughter?

There's a story that Benjamin Franklin thought the turkey should be the national bird instead of the eagle. In a 1784 letter addressed to Sarah, his daughter, Franklin wrote:

"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 perched on some dead tree, 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. . . . the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America."


Ashley P. Taylor, “Did Benjamin Franklin really want the turkey to be the

U.S. national bird?” Live Science, November 25, 2021

The question is how much credence to give to Franklin here,

Franklin goes so far as to call the bald eagle a “rank coward,” offering examples to support his case. To be clear, the letter was written after the national decision and we have no record of Franklin making an official proposal for the turkey as the U.S. symbol and national bird. But it's still fun to consider his concerns, which largely hold up to science.


Franklin’s indictment of the bald eagle — and praise for the turkey — goes on for more than 10 sentences, as a sort of tangent in his letter. While mixing in jabs at the “red coat” British guard, his words wander between tongue-in-cheek humor and sincerity. But there’s also plenty of scientific legitimacy to some of Franklin’s points, based on current knowledge of bald eagles.


Timothy Minch, “Should the Turkey Replace the Bald Eagle as the National Bird? Ben Franklin Thought So,” Discover Magazine, November 11, 2020


Franklin’s arguments were accurate

While many historians play down the words of Franklin, the truth is that Franklin made some very good points about the way in which Bald Eagles operate in the natural world.


Technically speaking, bald eagles are opportunistic predators, says Ed Hahn at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota. That means the birds feed on the flesh of dead animals (carrion), steal from other animals and hunt for their own food — when necessary. “The hierarchy really is in that order,” Hahn says. “Scavenging first, stealing second, hunting third. And that is determined purely by how easy it is to obtain their food.”


Franklin apparently felt incensed after observing for himself the “injustice” of an eagle stealing another bird’s hard-earned meal: “...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.”

His other qualm stemmed from watching bald eagles retreat from attacks by much smaller birds — something that Hahn says is also well documented. Bald eagles are generally solitary and independent. And despite their large size, they often get mobbed by songbirds that see them as a threat. Eastern king birds are especially known to swarm, dive-bomb and chase away bald eagles that venture into their nesting territory.

Timothy Minch, Discover Magazine, November 11, 2020

How did the Bald Eagle become the national symbol?


So, when the decision was made, Ben was not part of the group that made that decision,


In 1780, the design project passed to a new committee, of which Franklin was not a part. It was Philadelphia lawyer William Barton, who entered the project in 1782, who introduced an eagle into the design, according to History.com.


Then Charles Thomson, secretary of congress, made some changes; check out his 1782 design at the National Archives. Two pieces of legislation, one in 1782 and one in 1789, made it official: An eagle was on our seal and thus became our de facto national bird.


Ashley P. Taylor, Live Science, November 25, 2021


Ben was not joking, some say


The truth is, maybe Ben was simply telling people exactly how he felt and was not being facetious.


By the time Franklin wrote to his daughter in 1784, he was no longer part of the seal project. Maybe he was over it and just having a laugh. But not everyone thinks he was joking, exactly. "I don't think Franklin took the idea of a national bird seriously. National birds, national trees, national this and that weren't a regular thing back then," H. W. Brands, author of "The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin," (Doubleday, 2000) told Live Science in an email. "But I think he was serious that turkeys had character traits superior to those of eagles."

However, some at the Franklin Institute take umbrage at the idea,


"The story about Benjamin Franklin wanting the National Bird to be a turkey is just a myth," the Franklin Institute, a science museum and science education center in Philadelphia, writes on its website. But that organization does not say Franklin was joking; it just says that Franklin didn't specifically propose the turkey as the national bird. "Although Benjamin Franklin defended the honor of the turkey against the bald eagle, he did not propose its becoming one of America's most important symbols," the Franklin Institute continues.


Ashley Taylor, Live Science, November 25, 2021


So, while many dispute whether or not Franklin was speaking in jest, the reality is that he probably believed that the turkey had better character than does the Bald Eagle.

But, the Bald Eagle is statelier, for what that is worth.

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