As the story goes, when it came time to pick a national bird to represent the fledgling United States of America, Benjamin Franklin, statesman and scientist, had an unexpected favourite.
He was rooting for the turkey.
This is one of those historical stories that just sounds true. The idea of the elderly Franklin squabbling with his fellow Founding Fathers about birds is pretty funny. So is envisioning how weird American iconography would look if you replaced the eagle with a turkey.
However, like many weird and humorous historical anecdotes, it turns out that this tale isn’t really true. In fact, as you can see on GreatSeal.com, Franklin’s design proposal for the Great Seal doesn’t even mention any feathered creatures. His proposal actually featured a scene from Exodus.
However, as Jimmy Stamp wrote for Smithsonian Magazine, this myth does have glimmers of truth.
The legend about Franklin’s national bird proposal likely arose from his 1784 letter to his daughter, written a year and a half after the Great Seal was adopted.
In his note, he argues that the eagle on the seal looks like a turkey. The portion of the letter where he reflects upon the eagle’s unsuitability is often taken out of context:
“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… 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.”
So, while Franklin may have had pro-turkey leanings, the idea that he pressed for the wattled, flightless bird to become our national symbol is simply untrue.
But, for the sake of civility and Turkey Day, consider holding back on correcting your relatives if they bring up this myth over Thanksgiving dinner — you don’t want to start a fight.
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