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Ben vs. The Bald Eagle

The bald eagle has been a symbol of the United States for as long as the country has existed. It first appeared on Massachusetts currency back in 1776.

On 4 July 1776, following the passage of the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress tasked a committee to design a national seal for the newly created United States of America. The committee had three members: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Each of them chose designs with biblical and classical themes.

According to his notes, Franklin proposed a scene from the Book of Exodus. His recommendation was an image of "Moses standing on the shore, and extending his hand over the sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm pharaoh who is sitting in an open chariot" along with the motto "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God."  Jefferson suggested the children of Israel in the wilderness and Adams chose the "Judgement of Hercules." The first committee ultimately submitted a design, which did not include any bird at all, on 20 August 1776, but the Congress decided that the report should "lie on the table" and was not approved. Given the opportunity to choose a national symbol, the turkey never entered Benjamin Franklin's thoughts.

Two additional congressional committees, in 1780 and 1782, failed to decide on what it should look like. It was not until after the failure of the third committee, that Charles Thompson, the Secretary of Congress, took up the challenge.  He suggested that the seal should feature an "American Eagle."  The design concept was approved in June, but it was not drawn and presented for approval until September 1782. It was rejected. Once the eagle was drawn as a Bald Eagle the design was approved.  The Great Seal of the United States has remained unchanged ever since.

So just where did the notion that Benjamin Franklin proposed the turkey as the national symbol come from?

The story first appeared in American newspapers around the nation's centennial. The source of the controversy was a letter that Franklin wrote on 26 January 1784, addressed to his daughter, Sarah Bache. In it he wrote:

"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 perched on some dead tree, 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 then went on to praise the humble 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 served up at the wedding table of Charles the ninth. He is besides, (though a little vain and silly tis true, but not the worse emblem for that) 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."

However, despite this criticism of the bald eagle, the letter was not about its selection as a national symbol. It was a response to the formation of an organization who chose the bald eagle as its emblem. This organization was the Society of the Cincinnati.

The Society of the Cincinnati was founded by officers at the Continental Army encampment at Fishkill, New York, in May 1783. The organization took its name from the ancient Roman hero Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, an embodiment of civic virtue. Its founding document, the Institution, outlined the aims of the new organization: to perpetuate the memory of the War for Independence, maintain the fraternal bonds between the officers, promote the ideals of the Revolution, support members and their families in need, distinguish its members as men of honor, and advocate for the compensation promised to the officers by Congress. The founders made membership hereditary, meaning that only sons of officers in the American Revolution could enter its ranks.

In mid-December, Pierre-Charles L'Enfant arrived to deliver George Washington's letters and begin the work of establishing a French branch. At that point, Franklin became aware of the Society's creation. However, he did not appear to have seen the society's charter until 26 January, when he received it from John Paul Jones. Jones also included a pamphlet published in Charleston by Judge Aedanus Burke, an opponent of the society. In it, Burke called on his fellow citizens to mount a vigorous opposition before it was too late, and wrote that the organization was "a deep laid contrivance to beget, and perpetuate family grandeur in an aristocratic Nobility, to terminate at last in monarchical tyranny."

Franklin shared a similar belief as he expressed in his letter:

"My opinion of the institution cannot be of much importance. I only wonder that when the united wisdom of our nation had, in the Articles of Confederation, manifested their dislike of establishing ranks of nobility, by authority either of the Congress or of any particular state, a number of private persons should think proper to distinguish themselves and their posterity, from their fellow citizens, and form an order of hereditary Knights, in direct opposition to the solemnly declared sense of their country."

Benjamin Franklin was not the only one who was highly suspicious of the organization's motives; Thomas Jefferson and John Adams also had their doubts. The main problem was that it was founded on hereditary lines: only direct male decedents of the officers would be eligible to join in future generations. With removal of governance by a hereditary monarchy at the end of the American Revolution, many within the non-military leadership were fearful that this new group, founded by the most powerful men in North America at the time, might seize power for themselves.

The insignia of the Society of the Cincinnati was designed in 1783 by Pierre-Charles L’Enfant. Known as the Eagle, the Society’s insignia is a double-sided medal in the shape of the bald eagle, a distinctly American symbol that was chosen just a year earlier as the central figure of the Great Seal of the United States. With its down-turned wings, olive branches in both talons and depictions of the ancient Roman hero Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the Society Eagle emphasizes the founding of a peaceful American republic and the return of its soldiers to their civilian lives.

Medal belonging to the comte de Lauberdière,an aide-de-camp to General Rochambeau.

The first Eagles were made in early 1784 in Paris under L’Enfant’s direction, as he considered French craftsmen to be the only ones in the world skilled enough to produce the fine gold-and-enamel medals. L’Enfant contracted with Nicolas Jean Francastel and Claude Jean Autran Duval to make these first several hundred Eagles. American craftsmen soon began making their own versions of the Society insignia, which were sold to members in cities from Boston to Savannah.

George Washington, who was selected as the first president general of the Society, purchased eight gold Society insignias to give to former aides-de-camp who joined the organization. He presented one to Tench Tilghman of Maryland, to whom Washington entrusted the duty of delivering to Congress the Articles of Capitulation after the Siege of Yorktown.

Medal presented to Tench Tilghman by General Washington (with its original silk ribbon and metal clasp)

"I wish therefore that the Cincinnati if they must go on with their project, would direct the badges of their order to be worn by their fathers and mothers, instead of handing them down to their children. It would be a good precident and might have good effects. It would also be a kind of obedience to the fourth commandment, in which God enjoins us to honour our father and mother, but has no where directed us to honour our children."

It was here, in regard to the medals that Franklin made his comments, critical of the bald eagle, when he wrote about "The gentleman who made the voyage to France to provide the ribbands and medals; has executed his commission. To me they seem tolerably done; but all such things are criticised..."

"Others object to the bald eagle, as looking too much like a Dindon [French for turkey] or turkey....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, though exactly fit for that order of knights which the French call Chevaliers d’Industrie [a professional thief who makes his living by cheating]. I am on this account not displeased that the figure is not known as a bald eagle, but looks more like a turkey.

By mocking the image of the bald eagle on the medal, Franklin was criticizing the Society and not the choice of a new national symbol.

Franklin never sent the letter and he probably never intended to do so since he addressed to his daughter, with whom he never discussed politics. He only shared it with his grandsons who were living with him at the time. He then sent it to the abbé Morellet, asking for the letter to be translated into French. Morellet completed the task, but after doing so, cautioned Franklin to keep it private. Franklin agreed and assured Morellet that it would not be made public during his lifetime.

Unaware of Franklin's written sentiments about the Society, the Pennsylvania Society of the Cincinnati made Franklin an honorary member in 1789.

A few months after Franklin's death in 1790, a portion of Morellet’s French translation was published in Paris. It was not until 1817, when William Temple Franklin, included the letter in his edition of his grandfather's writings.

Within months of its formation, despite the critics who charged that the Society's real purpose was to impose a hereditary aristocracy on the new republic, members and non-members rushed to its defense of the Society. The Society’s first decade was a period of energy and growth, with 2,270 officers joined the new organization. Two of the initial members were relatives Simeon De Witt and Lewis DuBois.

References: “From Benjamin Franklin to Sarah Bache, 26 January 1784,” Founders Online, National Archives, [Original source: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 41, September 16, 1783, through February 29, 1784, ed. Ellen R. Cohn. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014, pp. 503–511.]


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