Turkey New Yorker Franklin

The truth about Ben Franklin and the turkey becoming America’s national bird

We celebrate the turkey this week and pretty much this week only. Aside from noted exceptions, like at Wawa, the turkey is rarely front and center in America. And even when it is, it’s dead, ready to be paired with mashed potatoes and stuffing and devoured.

Such an image could never be imagined for the bald eagle. It’s the emblem of America, the focal point of the Great Seal that is printed on official U.S. documents and on the back the $1 bill.

The myth goes, though, that a turkey almost made the cut as America’s symbol because Philadelphia’s own Ben Franklin advocated for the bird. So, is it true? Did Franklin really want a turkey to be the symbol of the United States of America?

Well… he did once call the turkey a “bird of courage” and one that “would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards,” but to fully answer that question, we must first go back to July 4, 1776, at Independence Hall.

The Declaration of Independence had just been signed and the Revolutionary War was under way. Despite what would seem to be greater concerns, i.e. beating the British so this Independence thing could last, our founding fathers formed a committee to come up with a seal. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Franklin were chosen to lead it (check the bottom of page 517 of this Continental Congress Journal for the details. It essentially has the Declaration of Independence’s information and then minutes at the end of a meeting that include this seal committee).

About a month later, the three men came back with their ideas. None of them had anything to do with an eagle, a turkey or any bird. And they were all really badass, as explained by John MacArthur at the Great Seal website.  

Jefferson: The children of Israel in the wilderness being led by a cloud and a pillar of fire.  

Adams: A depiction of the painting “The Judgment of Hercules,” which features Herc choosing between the easy, flowery path of self-indulgence or up the rugged path of duty.

Franklin: Moses parting the Red Sea while the pharaoh looks on, ready to be crushed. In the sky, rays of fire are hanging over Moses. The motto is “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”

None of these seals made the cut. Here’s what Franklin’s would have looked like, as illustrated nearly 100 years later:

Franklin Moses
U.S. Diplomacy Center

At another point before America had even declared independence, Franklin expressed desire in making the country’s symbol be a rattlesnake. This came after he saw a painted rattlesnake on the drum of a marine with the slogan “Don’t tread on me.” He liked the rattlesnake because it was native to our continent and because it never started an attack but also never backed down once it had engaged in one.  

The next step after the 1776 committee failed to come up with a seal was to form another committee, in 1780. This time another Philadelphian got to come up with the idea. Francis Hopkinson was the guy who designed the first American flag used by the Continental Congress and apparently a fan of Rome. His seal featured a shield of 13 red and white stripes held up by a Roman-looking soldier and a woman symbolizing peace. Its motto was “for war or for peace.”  

Finally, in 1782, we got the seal we have today. Charles Tomson designed it. 

Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 8.13.51 AM
U.S. Diplomacy Center

The bald eagle became the symbol of America.

So what about that turkey?

Well, Franklin wrote a letter about the turkey to his sister in 1784. He was in Paris at the time, nearing the end of his life but still in full mistress mode. While in his 70s, Franklin might have even proposed to a French woman — it’s not known whether he was serious or joking. In the same vein, Franklin offered his tangent about eagles and turkeys because of some medals being offered for honored soldiers that featured the seal.

For my own part I wish the 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 labor 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 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 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. 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 served up at the wedding table of Charles the Ninth. 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.  

Franklin’s turkey letter mostly remained unknown to the general public for nearly 200 years. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century, in 1962, when the story started popping up after the New Yorker featured on its cover a design of the U.S. Seal with a turkey instead of an eagle (The New Yorker’s editor at the time was William Shawn. His son Wallace Shawn played the “inconceivable” guy in “Princess Bride” and voiced Rex the T-Rex in “Toy Story.”)   

According to the U.S. Diplomacy Center, this helped popularize Franklin’s preference for the turkey. 

Turkey New Yorker
Anatole Kovarsky, New Yorker via Amazon

His thoughts on the turkey are so well-known these days that the Franklin Institute includes a response about the turkey on its FAQ page on Franklin. But that letter was likely his only mention of making the turkey the symbol of the U.S. The Diplomacy Center notes that it’s unknown whether Franklin publicly expressed feelings about the bird.

Either way, that turkey seal sure looks amazing, as would one with Moses, Hercules or a rattlesnake.

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