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Bald Eagle/USFWS Franklin with his famous fur cap Eastern Wild Turkey, Gary M. Stolz/USFWS

The Eagle, Ben Franklin, and the Wild Turkey

A year and a half after the Great Seal was adopted by Congress on June 20, 1782 – with the American Bald Eagle as its centerpiece – Benjamin Franklin shared some thoughts about this new symbol of America in a letter. He did not express these personal musings elsewhere, but they have become legendary.

Writing from France on January 26, 1784 to his daughter Sally (Mrs. Sarah Bache) in Philadelphia, Franklin casts doubt on the propriety of using the eagle to symbolize the "brave and honest Cincinnati of America," a newly formed society of revolutionary war officers.

Franklin's idea The eagle on the badge of the Society of the Cincinnati Medal looked more like a turkey, which prompted Franklin to compare the two birds as a symbol for the United States.

Franklin's Letter to His Daughter (excerpt)

"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...

"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."

Ben Franklin's Other Ideas
His 1775 letter in the Pennsylvania Journal made a good case for the Rattlesnake as an appropriate symbol of "the temper and conduct of America." In 1776, Franklin's official suggestion while on the first Great Seal committee was an historic scene with Moses and Pharaoh, which that committee recommended for the reverse side of the Great Seal.

Dove in third committee's sketch (detail). Three other kinds of birds were suggested by William Barton of the third committee: a rooster, a dove, and a "phoenix in flames."

"Because of their size, bald eagles are not concerned about threats from other birds. However, eagles are often chased by smaller birds, who are trying to protect their young. . . It was Benjamin Franklin's observations of a bald eagle either ignoring or retreating from such mobbing that probably led to his claim of the bald eagle's lack of courage." (

Historical content is based on the official history of the Great Seal.
Copyright ©2015 by John D. MacArthur.