There is and for some time has been a story going around that our sage old founding father Benjamin Franklin wanted the national symbolic bird of the United States to be not the Bald Eagle, but the Wild Turkey. While this story sounds rather odd (to say the least), and has been dismissed as a myth by no less an authority than the United States Diplomacy Center, the fact is that the story really is not a myth, not quite. Writing to his daughter, Sally (Mrs. Sarah Bache) on today’s date, January 26, in 1784 Franklin didn’t say in so many words that he thought that the Turkey should be our national bird. Rather, he commented that one design he had seen for the seal of the United States bore an image of the Eagle that looked like a Turkey. He then went on to compare the qualities of the two birds, and found the Eagle to be lacking. The Eagle in the estimation of Dr. Franklin was a scavenger, a coward, and rather a lazy one at that:
“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. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched 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.
With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America* who have driven all the King birds from our country…”
Whereas, in Franklin’s view, the Turkey, while “vain and silly” was nevertheless brave and… “respectable” :
“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… 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.”
Whether or not Ben has it right about the two birds is a question for the ornithologists among you. But I, for one am glad that we stuck with the Eagle. Readers, what do you think?
* = “The Cincinnati of America” was a recently-formed society of officers who were veterans of the Revolutionary War.