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The Turkey: America's National Bird?

Left to right: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin: for the birds--or were they?

In the 1969 musical 1776 there is a passionate discussion about what America’s national symbol should be.  Three of the delegates to the Continental Congress--Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams--argue with each other to support their favorite candidates.  Before breaking out in song, you hear Jefferson advocating that the dove, the bird of peace, represent the new nation.  John Adams advocates the majestic eagle.  Benjamin Franklin pushes for the intelligent, indigenous turkey.  If you’ll pardon the spoiler: John Adams wins the argument.

The song “The Egg” from 1776

It’s a charming song, and an amusing scene, but I’m afraid it was just a myth.  What the song refers to is an actual committee that the three men were on that was tasked to come up with a design for the Great Seal of the United States.  It’s true that each man had his own idea what that seal should look like, but none of them had birds on their brains.  Jefferson liked something combining figures from Anglo-Saxon mythology with the children of Israel.  Franklin imagined a biblical scene involving Moses and the pharaoh of Egypt.  Adams wanted Hercules.

In the end, none of them got what they wanted, and eventually moved on to weightier tasks, like drafting the Declaration of Independence and so forth.  The Great Seal was an important matter, though--important enough that Congress hired a Swiss-born American designer named Pierre Eugène du Simitière who came up with the image of the Liberty Goddess.  His design was rejected, but the LIberty Goddess remained a popular image for long after, appearing on most American coins from the founding of the US Mint in 1792 until the early 20th century.  In 1780, Congress asked Francis Hopkinson, the designer of the American flag, for his input.  (Sorry--the flag wasn’t designed by Betsy Ross--that’s a myth for another time!)  Hopkinson also liked the Liberty Goddess, but Congress didn’t like the design.  A third committee was convened in 1782 and it first proposed an eagle, inserting it into a complicated design that included that dove of peace.  That idea never took flight, either.

Congress chose to put the eagle on the front of the Great Seal of the United States, and a pyramid on the back.  The design was provided only in a written description by Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Congress.  Thomson’s written description was good enough for Congress.  It read as follows:

Remarks and Explanation
The Escutcheon [shield] is composed of the chief [top part of the shield] & pale [stripes on the shield], the two most honorable ordinaries. The Pieces, paly [stripes, again], represent the several states all joined in one solid compact entire, supporting a Chief, which unites the whole & represents Congress. The Motto alludes to this union. The pales in the arms are kept closely united by the chief and the Chief depends upon that union & the strength resulting from it for its support, to denote the Confederacy of the United States of America & the preservation of their union through Congress. 

The Olive branch and arrows denote the power of peace & war which is exclusively vested in Congress. The Constellation denotes a new State taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers. The Escutcheon 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.– 

Reverse.  [Yes, the Seal has two sides.]  The pyramid signifies Strength and Duration: The Eye over it & the Motto allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favour of the American cause. The date underneath is that of the Declaration of Independence and the words under it signify the beginning of the new American Æra [era], which commences from that date.– 

A portion of Thomson’s document.  There is more, which appears above, but you get the idea.

Thomson mentioned the motto “Annuit Cœptis” which he felt should appear above the Eye of Providence.  The motto comes from Virgil’s manual for farmers titled The Gregorics, specifically from the line “Da facilem cursum, atque audacibus annue cœptis,” which is an appeal to Emperor Augustus Cæsar and translates as “Give me an easy course and favor my daring undertakings.”  Since the eye is supposed to represent the eye of God, Thomson’s interpretation claims that it’s God who approves.  The pyramid beneath the eye is unfinished.  Thomson did not specify that it should be unfinished, but designers liked to make it that way.  It has been suggested that this symbolizes that the American experiment is still unfinished.  It has also been suggested that the Eye of Providence is there to finish the design, integral to the pyramid but unsupported, since God needs no such support.  These explanations are not official.

Why an eagle?  It’s hard to say, exactly.  Eagles have long been popular symbols for nations.  The eagle was the symbol used by the Roman Empire, and later by Prussia, Germany, Italy, Poland, Czarist Russia, Mexico, to name just a few.  Neither Franklin nor anyone else supported the turkey as the national bird.  The myth comes from a letter Franklin wrote to his daughter, where he complains about the choice of the eagle.  Franklin didn’t like eagles, and he didn’t like the design that was currently in use for the Great Seal.  He complained that the bird on the Great Seal looked more like a turkey than an eagle, anyway.  Further, he had the following to say in that letter: 

“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 is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district.  For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird.  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.” 

A paper impression of the first Great Seal, 1782.  You can see what Franklin was talking about.

The design of the Great Seal went through several different standards over the years.  The most recent redesign appeared in 1885, and is still in use today.  In fact Congress requisitioned a redesign of both sides of the Great Seal, but only the eagle side was updated.  The pyramid side was never done.

The most common use of the Great Seal is on the podium the president of the United States speaks from.  It’s immediately recognizable.  The pyramid is seldom if ever shown in official ceremonies, but it’s very commonly seen.  While there is still no official update of the back of the Great Seal, there’s an unofficial image of it that has appeared on the back of the $1 bill since 1935.

The reverse of the $1 bill was approved by President Franklin Roosevelt, whose approval was conditional on two demands: 1. The pyramid must appear on the left instead of the right, as originally proposed, and 2. The pyramid side must be captioned “The Great Seal” and the eagle side “of the United States”.


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