Did Ben Franklin Really Dis the Bald Eagle?

John Audubon - Wild Turkey

John Audubon - Wild Turkey

John Audubon - White-headed (Bald) Eagle

John Audubon - White-headed (Bald) Eagle

Have you heard the one about Franklin opposing the Bald Eagle as national symbol? Well, it may not be true.

The Bald Eagle has ranged widely across U.S. coins, paper currency, and government stationary for more than 200 years. A committee of the Continental Congress proposed the Bald Eagle as the U.S. national symbol in 1782, before the American Revolution had ended. In accepting the committee’s proposal, the Continental Congress followed a long tradition of nations embossing Eagles on money, medallions, and medals. The raptors served as the emblem of the Roman Empire, appeared in myths from Scandinavia to Rome and Greece to Japan, and were central to many American Indian religions. Eagles have served or still serve as national emblems in Russia, Germany, Austria, Mexico, Kazakhstan, Albania, Egypt, Palestine, and many more. However, these birds were all Golden Eagles. The Continental Congress rejected the Golden Eagle as too European and settled on the Bald.

Benjamin Franklin and the Bald Eagle

American legend has it that Benjamin Franklin—scholar, statesman, scientist, revolutionary—opposed the choice of the Bald Eagle.

Well, not exactly.

When the Continental Congress picked the Bald Eagle, Franklin was serving as an ambassador in France. He had no say in the decision. He voiced his only known complaint in a letter he wrote to his daughter on January 26, 1784, nearly two years after Congress sealed the choice of the Bald Eagle. Franklin declared:

For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as 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 perch’d 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 and 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.  

Franklin said his preference ran toward the Wild Turkey

For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. Eagles have been found in all Countries, but the Turkey was peculiar to ours, the first of the Species seen in Europe being brought to France by the Jesuits from Canada, and serv’d up at the Wedding Table of Charles the ninth. He is besides, tho’ a little vain and 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 Different Message

Franklin’s commentary may have been tongue in cheek. However, his letter includes a serious message visible only to much later generations: the Bald Eagle, Fishing Hawk (Osprey), and Wild Turkey were all pressed nearly to extinction during the 200 years after Franklin’s epistle. Today—thanks to strong hunting laws and to restocking programs—Wild Turkeys once again inhabit the bulk of their range across the Lower 48 States. Bald Eagles and Ospreys are arguably common in coastal areas, thanks to federal protection under such laws as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and bans on the use of pesticides that have proved lethal to raptors and many other bird species.

The Fourth of July is a perfect time to celebrate not only the birth of our nation but also the revival of our wildlife heritage through conservation, regulation, and law.