Benjamin Franklin Never Campaigned For The Turkey

By Debra Kelly on Monday, March 31, 2014
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“TURKEY, n. A large bird whose flesh when eaten on certain religious anniversaries has the peculiar property of attesting piety and gratitude. Incidentally, it is pretty good eating.” —Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

In A Nutshell

One of the long-standing myths revolving around the national symbols of the United States is that Benjamin Franklin campaigned to have not the eagle representing the country, but the turkey. According to the Franklin Institute and the United States Diplomacy Center, it’s absolutely untrue. Franklin did write a letter to his daughter commenting on the turkey-like appearance of the eagle that was drawn, but there was no official movement.

The Whole Bushel

We can’t help but wonder how seriously the image of the newly created United States would have been taken if it hadn’t been the eagle that was adopted as the country’s official bird, but the turkey. According to legend, when it came time to design the official seal of the United States, Benjamin Franklin staunchly opposed using the majestic-looking eagle. Instead, it’s said, he wanted the turkey. Apparently he had thought it was a rather American bird, and that it would have been a very good representative of the new nation just coming into its own.

Unfortunately, there are no actual official documents supporting the idea that Franklin ever seriously campaigned for putting the ungainly, ugly, flightless bird on the face of the nation.

What he did write was a personal letter to his daughter at the time the seal was being designed. He told her that the eagle had already been chosen as the avian representative of the country, and he does question the choice. In spite of the noble appearance of the bird, he points to the eagle as being cowardly, often giving up territory to smaller birds, and lazy, stealing food from those who have actually gone out to hunt it.

In the letter, he’s also not thrilled about the depiction of the eagle, and says that it looks more like a turkey. Which, he goes on to say, might be a better choice because of the bird’s tenacious defense of his land and his status as a native bird of North America. But, he also says in the same letter that the whole thing would look a little ridiculous with a turkey as the country’s mascot.

So where did the myth come from?

In part, the personal letter to his daughter. It wasn’t well known until The New Yorker picked it up and ran with it, though. In 1962, a cover for the magazine re-envisioned the Great Seal as it would have looked starring a turkey instead of a bald eagle.

Ben Franklin wasn’t even in the country at the time the Great Seal was being designed. He was in France in 1782, attempting to aid in negotiations to settle the long-standing animosity between England and France.

Interestingly, he did actually propose some images for the Great Seal. In addition to suggesting the rattlesnake as the country’s animal representative, Franklin really wanted something of an action scene. His formal proposal was the idea of an image depicting Moses and the Pharaoh, straight out of Exodus. The idea of a man leading his people out of slavery and into freedom was one that rang particularly timely with Franklin. He described the scene as he wanted as showing Moses raising his hands to the sea, drowning the Pharaoh while rays of fire and light shine down on the Biblical hero.

He also specified on what should be engraved around the outside of the seal: Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God. The words wouldn’t make it onto the country’s seal, but they were certainly used on Franklin’s own personal seal.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: American Myths: Benjamin Franklin’s Turkey and the Presidential Seal
United States Diplomacy Center: Symbols of the Great Seal
Great Seal: The Eagle, Ben Franklin, and the Wild Turkey
Benjamin Franklin’s Great Seal Redesign (with drawings and photos)