Unsullied by Falsehood: Ben Franklin and the Turkey

Unsullied by FalsehoodOne of the most popular Thanksgiving-related myths in American history is the notion that Benjamin Franklin preferred the turkey as the national symbol of the United States, over the bald eagle. This story gained popularity in November 1962, when the New Yorker featured a cover illustration by Anatole Kovarsky of the Great Seal of the United States with a turkey in the place of the bald eagle. That same decade, the musical 1776 premiered on Broadway, and featured a song called "The Egg", where Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams compare the birth of a new nation through the Declaration of Independence to an egg hatching. This launches a debate over which bird should symbolize America: John Adams calls for the eagle, Jefferson for the dove, and Franklin (of course) for the turkey. How did we come to associate the symbolism of the turkey with Benjamin Franklin, and is there any truth to it?

Cover illustration by Anatole Kovarsky, The New Yorker

On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was approved. But something else happened in Congress on that date: "Resolved, That Dr. Franklin, Mr. J Adams and Mr. Jefferson, be a committee, to bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America." Now that independence had been declared, a symbol of the thirteen United States was needed. In fact, there is evidence that the Congress may have wanted to decide on a seal before signing the engrossed parchment of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams wrote to Samuel Chase on July 9th, "As soon as an American Seal is prepared, I conjecture the Declaration will be subscribed by all the Members, which will give you the opportunity you wish for, of transmitting your Name, among the Votaries of Independence."

But, when the majority of the delegates signed the engrossed parchment on August 2nd, there was still no seal for the United States. This first committee of Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson submitted their design for a seal in mid-August, but it was tabled by Congress. It took several more committees and six more years before a design for the Great Seal of the United States would be approved.

There weren't really any eagles (or turkeys) present in the designs proposed by Franklin, Adams, or Jefferson. In a letter to Abigail on August 14th, John Adams described each man's idea for the seal: 

"Dr. F. proposes a Device for a Seal. Moses lifting up his Wand, and dividing the Red Sea, and Pharaoh, in his Chariot overwhelmed with the Waters.—This Motto. Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God. Mr. Jefferson proposed. The Children of Israel in the Wilderness, led by a Cloud by day, and a Pillar of Fire by night, and on the other Side Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon Chiefs, from whom We claim the Honour of being descended and whose Political Principles and Form of Government We have assumed. I proposed the Choice of Hercules, as engraved by Gribeline in some Editions of Lord Shaftsburys Works. The Hero resting on his Clubb. Virtue pointing to her rugged Mountain on one Hand, and perswading him to ascend. Sloth, glancing at her flowery Paths of Pleasure, wantonly reclining on the Ground, displaying the Charms both of her Eloquence and Person, to seduce him into Vice. But this is too complicated a Group for a Seal or Medal, and it is not original."

The committee's final proposal included bits from each of these ideas, as sketched by Pierre Eugene du Simitiere, who Adams called "a very curious Man". The only bit that made it into the final design in 1782 was the motto on the obverse, "E Pluribus Unum". Here is a 19th century rendering of their final design, which was submitted to Congress on August 20, 1776.

Benson Lossing, 1856 Interpretation of First Committee Design (Obverse)Benson Lossing, 1856 Interpretation of First Committee Design (Reverse)

The connection between the Great Seal of the United States and the Declaration of Independence goes beyond that July 4th resolution, and beyond Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson. In 1780, Congress resolved to form another committee to design a seal, consisting of James Lovell, John Morin Scott, and William Churchill Houston. As the first committee had reached out to du Simitiere to sketch their concept, this second committee reached out to Francis Hopkinson. In addition to being a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Hopkinson is credited with designing the first flag of the United States.

Francis Hopkinson, Design for Great Seal of the United States (Obverse)Francis Hopkinson, Design for the Great Seal of the United States (Reverse)
Second committee's proposal, as sketched by Francis Hopkinson

After a third committee failed to have their design approved, another man deeply connected to the Declaration of Independence stepped in: Secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thomson. In June 1782, Thomson borrowed from each of the three committees' concepts to create a new design, which is still used as the Great Seal of the United States today. The core element of the obverse is the bald eagle, supporting the thirteen stripes representing the thirteen states, clutching an olive branch and a bundle of arrow in its claws, with the motto held in its beak. Thomson submitted his design to Congress on June 20th, and it was approved that day. A brass die was cut, and on September 16th, Thomson used the die for the first time, on a document authorizing George Washington to negotiate for an exchange of prisoners of war.

Charles Thomson, Preliminary Design for Great Seal of the United StatesFirst Die for the Great Seal of the United States
Thomson's Preliminary Design, and the First Die for the Great Seal

Thomson's design for the Great Seal of the United States gives the recognizable eagle, and brings us to Benjamin Franklin and the turkey. Dozens of articles have appeared in the last few years tackling this question: Did Franklin really prefer the turkey to the bald eagle, as the national symbol? Not quite.

In January 1784, Franklin wrote to his daughter, Sarah Bache, and this unpublished letter contains this infamous quote: "For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our Country." But, providing context for this quote shows that Franklin isn't actually upset by the choice of the bald eagle for the Great Seal. Instead, this is a part of a joke in a letter registering Franklin's disapproval of the Society of the Cincinatti, a hereditary society founded in 1783 which had adopted the bald eagle as its symbol after the Great Seal. The joke is based in the idea that the Society's symbol appeared to some to look more like a turkey than an eagle.

Society of the Cincinnati CertificateClose-up, Society of the Cincinnati Certificate
Membership Certificate for the Society of the Cincinnati, and a close-up of the "turkey"

Here is the quote in context:

"Others object to the Bald Eagle, as looking too much like a Dindon, or Turkey. 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. 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, tho' exactly fit for that Order of Knights which the French call Chevaliers d'Industrie. I am on this account not displeas'd that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a 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."

So, Franklin isn't directly rebuking the Great Seal of the United States — he is rebuking the insignia of the Cincinnati. He isn't calling for the turkey to be the symbol of the nation, but he is drawing an interesting parallel. Membership in the Society of the Cincinnati was hereditary, and although the Society was founded by heroes of the American Revolution (George Washington and Alexander Hamilton were the Society's first and second presidents), the notion of a hereditary society seemed to Franklin and others to be un-American. This is why Franklin calls the bald eagle lazy, a "King bird".

Though the bald eagle has persisted as the symbol of America, and though Franklin was really just joking about preferring the turkey, his arguments in favor of the turkey ring true. He claims that the turkey, unlike the eagle, is uniquely North American. While bald eagles are native to North America, there are far more species of eagle in Europe and Asia; by comparison, all species of the turkey originated in North America. Franklin goes on to call the turkey courageous and respectable, "tho' a little vain and silly", perhaps continuing his connection between the characters of the turkey and the nation.

Did Benjamin Franklin want the turkey on the Great Seal of the United States? No. But the turkey did play a role in one of Franklin's other legacies: experimentation with electricity. Franklin used turkeys to test electrical shock, and even wrote to Peter Collinson in 1751 that, "Birds kill'd in this Manner eat uncommonly tender."

Happy Turkey Day!

More on Franklin and the Turkey:

By Emily Sneff

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