As we celebrate another Thanksgiving Day, Constitution Daily looks into a nagging historical question: Did the Founders really intend to use the turkey, and not the eagle, as a symbol of American might?
That is undoubtedly an important question to turkeys everywhere, who could be spared from dinner tables around the nation if they have true claim to be on the Great Seal used on official forms of communication by the United States government.
But while turkeys clearly had one fan among the Founders, Benjamin Franklin, it appears that the birds weren’t close to challenging the eagle as the nation’s proud patriotic symbol.
In popular culture, the debate over the national symbol was memorialized in the musical 1776, in which the Founding Fathers debate three possible birds as the national symbol in a memorable scene. In the end, the eagle is picked over the turkey and dove.
The real debate over the Great Seal does go back to 1776 and it lasted six years. The first round involved the heavyweights of Founding Fathers: Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. They were tasked by the Continental Congress to come up with a Great Seal design.
Franklin’s idea was a design that featured a Biblical scene featuring Moses and Pharaoh. Jefferson wanted a scene depicting the children of Israel and two Anglo-Saxon mythical figures. Adams wanted another mythical figure: Hercules.
The three Founders brought in a designer, Pierre Eugène Du Simitière, to work with them. He rejected those ideas and designed a seal with a shield held by the Goddesses of Liberty and Justice. The designs were quickly rejected by the Continental Congress.
A second committee of lesser known Founders tackled the Great Seal debate in 1780 and they brought in Francis Hopkinson, who had designed the American flag in 1777. His seal had a shield that added elements from the flag, and it was held by a warrior and Lady Liberty. Congress also rejected that design.
A third committee in 1782 came up with a complicated design that featured a crested imperial eagle and a dove as elements. The idea didn’t fly with Congress.
The frustrated lawmakers asked Charles Thomson, the Secretary of the Continental Congress, to settle the Great Seal issue. It was Thomson who made sure the American Bald Eagle was the focus of the front of the Great Seal, while using the pyramid and eye design from the third committee as the back of the seal.
Congress accepted Thomson’s report as a written description of the Great Seal (there wasn’t a designed attached for it to critique), and within three months, the familiar design was in use.
“The shield is born on the breast of an American Eagle without any other supporters to denote that the United States of America ought to rely on their own virtue,” Thomson told Congress.
The current “eagle” design in use was cut into a die in 1885. The previous eagles were different, which is where Benjamin Franklin again enters into the story.
Franklin, in a rather catty way, tore the eagle design and the choice of the eagles as a national symbol to shreds in a January 1784 letter sent to Sally Bache in Philadelphia.
To begin with, Franklin was not a fan of eagles in general, even though he was from Philadelphia.
“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,” said Franklin. “He is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district.
Franklin then said the eagle on the Great Seal looked more like a turkey.
“For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird,” he says. “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.”
But Franklin had his chance in 1776 to argue in favor of the turkey as the featured bird on the Great Seal, which he declined to do, and in 1775 he actually proposed that the rattlesnake should be the national symbol.
In 1801, Thomson wrote to James Madison about the decision to use the eagle as the national symbol and included his rationale within the letter.
The Presidential Seal is similar to the Great Seal and it features an eagle. In 1945, President Truman officially mandated the use of the eagle in the Presidential Seal.
So to settle debate, while Franklin was a turkey supporter, but he didn’t champion the bird when he had a chance. And the turkey was never in the discussion about becoming a national symbol.
Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.
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