Benjamin Franklin and the Turkey

Benjamin Franklin, Turkey lover. 

Here's something to consider as you make leftover Turkey sandwiches for lunch today...

Benjamin Franklin's preference for using the Turkey over the Bald Eagle on our Great Seal is a well known piece of American folklore -  but is there any truth to the tale? Kinda sorta.   

The story was born from a letter Franklin wrote to his daughter after the Society of Cincinnati (a veteran's organization composed of American Revolutionary War officers) struck a new medal as a gift to French supporters of American Independence. The medal was prominently adorned with a Bald Eagle as a symbol of the United States - but many critics felt that the depicted bird more closely resembled a Turkey. This observation prompted Franklin to compare and contrast the two.  His letter reads, 

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. You may have seen him perched 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 & 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 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.

This 1962 New Yorker cover by Anatole Kovarsky is largely responsible for propagating the well known Franklin story.   

The debate over the creation of the Great Seal of the United States, however, is another matter. Although Franklin was a member of the initial congressional committee tasked with designing the seal, he never made any suggestion of emblazoning the Turkey upon it. Indeed, Franklin proposed using an allegorical scene of Biblical origin; namely, Moses witnessing the drowning of Pharaoh's army. The ultimate seal came into being years later (1782) absent any influence from Franklin. 

The two stories became fused together in 1962, when a cover image for The New Yorker magazine imagined what the Great Seal would look like if the morally upright Turkey of Franklin's letter had instead been used.

Gobble gobble.