What’s the Better National Bird, Turkey or Bald Eagle?

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It’s hard to think of the symbol of the United States without picturing a majestic bald eagle swooping through the air. Charles Thomson’s Great Seal of the United States, which pictures the bald eagle, was designed and accepted by Congress in 1782. Thomson is a little known founding father, with his name appearing next to John Hancock’s on the Declaration of Independence. He served as the Secretary of the Continental Congress for fifteen years and was held in high regard by his peers for both his intelligence and honesty.

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In John Trumbull’s painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Thomson is pictured standing to the right of John Hancock sitting in the chair

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Charles Thomson’s name on the Declaration of Independence

Picking a design for the Great Seal was not easy. Starting back in 1776, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams debated how best to design a national symbol. The three men had varying ideas ranging from Adams wanting Hercules to Franklin wanting Moses and Pharaoh. A couple of artists were hired to come up with designs. Both threw out these founding father’s ideas and came up with designs featuring a Goddess of Liberty. Congress rejected all of these ideas and in 1782 turned to another committee to design the seal. This committee came up with a complicated design featuring an eagle and a dove, which Congress also rejected. Desperate for an idea, Congress turned to Thomson for help. Thomson wrote his description of the seal featuring the American Bald Eagle. Thomson’s design was approved by Congress and the bald eagle became a national symbol.

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Where then does the turkey come in to play in all of this? Contrary to what many think, Benjamin Franklin never seriously proposed that the turkey be used as our national symbol. The idea that Franklin wanted the turkey to be our national bird comes from a letter he wrote to his daughter Sarah (Sally) Franklin Bache in 1784 while Franklin was still in France. Sally was born to Ben and his wife Deborah on September 11, 1743. Sally was actively involved in politics, especially for a woman during this period. We know much about Sally through her personal letters between herself and her father.

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Sally Franklin Bache

In his letter to Sally, Franklin comments that the eagle pictured in the newly adopted seal looks like a turkey. In true Franklin form, he goes on to compare the differences between the bald eagle and the turkey from a moral perspective and clearly favors the turkey over the eagle. Franklin claims that the bald eagle is a bird of bad moral character as it steals fish caught by other birds and is a coward by letting littler birds fly around him and drive him away from their nests. Franklin goes on to claim that he wished the Great Seal really did picture a turkey instead of a bald eagle. Franklin notes that while the bald eagle is found in various nations, the turkey is truly native to American soil. According to Franklin, turkeys are courageous birds 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.” Last but certainly not least, Franklin makes note that turkeys are a delicacy fit for a feast of kings. By comparison, you don’t see many eagles roasted to perfection with the dressing and sides prepared for a feast. Thus, although the turkey may have never been truly considered a candidate for our national symbol, I’m with Franklin. The turkey beats the bald eagle, especially on Thanksgiving.

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