Heraldry in the USA




The Arms of the United States: Benjamin Franklin and the Turkey

by Joseph McMillan

Every American has heard the story. It’s even taught to schoolchildren, just as the story of George Washington and the cherry tree once was. It’s been enshrined in a Broadway musical. Here’s how it appears on—of all places—the children’s page of the Central Intelligence Agency website:

When our country was being established, Benjamin Franklin, one of our founding fathers and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wished the national bird to be the wild turkey. Mr. Franklin believed the turkey was a good choice as it provided food for the early settlers. He also thought that the turkey looked noble. However, Mr. Franklin was outvoted by the other members of the Continental Congress.

Is it true? Sort of, but not quite.

Benjamin Franklin was never involved in the selection of the “national bird,” or, to be more accurate, in the selection of the bald eagle as the supporter of the national coat of arms. It’s true that he was on the first committee appointed to study the design of a seal and coat of arms, but that committee wrapped up work in August 1776, almost six years before the arms were adopted, without ever discussing the inclusion of an eagle or any other bird. The first time an eagle appeared in any of the proposed designs was in May 1782, by which time Franklin had been the American envoy in Paris for more than five years. From that distance he could not possibly have expressed any reservations about the eagle in the short time between the first time it was proposed and Congress’s approval of the finished design six weeks later, assuming he had any reservations in the first place.

If he did, in fact, seriously oppose the choice once he had learned about it, he kept uncharacteristically quiet. Franklin definitely knew of the design of the arms by July 1783 at the latest, when he put an engraved representation, in the form of a facsimile of the great seal, on the title page of a French translation of the Articles of Confederation, printed on his personal press at Passy. Yet there is no evidence that he remonstrated with Congress concerning the matter in any way, either then or later, nor did he ever make any public statement opposing the choice of the eagle.

The legend of Dr. Franklin and the turkey originates in a private letter penned some six months later, and it has to do not with the national arms as such but with the badge of the military fraternity known as the Society of the Cincinnati. The Society of the Cincinnati had been founded in May 1783 by a number of former officers of the Continental Army as a means of maintaining their wartime comradeship. Franklin, like Thomas Jefferson and several other prominent American statesmen, opposed the whole idea of the Cincinnati, particularly the fact that membership had been made hereditary, but also that the society had taken on the outward trappings of an order of chivalry. On January 26, 1784, Franklin vented his spleen on the subject in a long letter to his daughter, Sarah Bache. A few excerpts will suffice to convey the tone in which he was writing:

  • 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.
  • I imagine it must be likewise contrary to the Good Sense of most of those drawn into it, by the Persuasion of its Projectors, who have been too much struck with the Ribbands and Crosses they have seen among them, hanging to the Button-holes of Foreign Officers. And I suppose those who disapprove of it have not hitherto given it much Opposition, from a Principle a little like that of your Mother, relating to punctilious Persons, who are always exacting little Observances of Respect, that if People can be pleased with small Matters, it is pity but they should have them.
  • Perhaps I should not myself, if my Advice had been asked, have objected to their Wearing their Ribband and Badge according to their Fancy, tho’ I certainly should to the entailing it as an Honour on their Posterity.
  • In Nine Generations, which will not require more than 300 Years, (no very great Antiquity for a Family) our present Chevalier of the Order of Cincinnatus’s Share in the then existing Knight will be but a 512th part; which, allowing the present certain Fidelity of American Wives to be insured down thro’ all those Nine Generations, is so small a Consideration, that methinks no reasonable Man would hazard for the sake of it the disagreable Consequences of the Jealousy, Envy and Ill-will of his Countrymen.

Only then does Franklin get to the part of the letter that has been so often quoted. Having found fault with the motives and concept of the society, he turns to its badge, which a member had come to France to have manufactured. After alluding to faults found with the badge by unnamed critics, Franklin writes of the appearance of its principal element, a gilt eagle:

Others object to the Bald Eagle, as looking too much like a Dindon, or Turkey. 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… 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, tho’ exactly fit for that Order of Knights which the French call Chevaliers d’Industrie.
I am on this account not displeas’d that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, tho’ a little vain and 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.

Leaving this excursion into ornithology, Franklin first says that he will not “enter into the Criticisms made upon their Latin” on the grounds that “the gallant Officers of America may not have the Merit of being great Scholars,” and then proceeds to criticize the Latin mottos on the badge. He closes the letter with a bilingual Latin-English joke about personal vanity.

Badge, Society of the Cincinnati
Source: Library of Congress

What are we to make of all this? On the one hand, Franklin's motive in writing the letter, from start to finish, is to attack the Society of the Cincinnati. While never impugning the valor of the former officers comprising the society, Franklin essentially calls them un-American, unreasonable, and uneducated. Moreover, read in conjunction with his earlier ridicule of the wearing of "ribbands and crosses" and the closing joke about vanity, Franklin's description of the character of the turkey who drives the redcoats out of the farmyard as courageous but "a little vain and silly" had to have been intended as a reflection on the society's organizers. His setting the joke about the turkey in a farmyard would have been immediately recognized by the classically-educated as an allusion to Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus himself, who gave up public office to return to his farm after saving Rome from invasion. Finally, if we read carefully, we can see that Franklin never says that the turkey would be better than the eagle as a symbol for the United States; he suggests instead that it would be better as a symbol for the Cincinnati.

All that said, there is no reason to doubt that Franklin believed what he said about the character of the eagle. He may also have preferred not to have something that could be interpreted as carrying imperial connotations as the emblem of the new republic--although when he was himself made an honorary member of the Society of the Cincinnati in 1785, he seems to have had no compunctions about accepting his own little gilded "bird of bad moral character." In any case, whatever his views on the eagle, the story of Dr. Franklin's strenuous opposition to it when the great seal was under consideration, and his unsuccessful advocacy for replacing it with the turkey, is a gross exaggeration of the historical record.

Based in part on discussion of this issue in the official history of the great seal of the United States, Richard S. Patterson and Richardson Dougall, The Eagle and the Shield: A History of the Great Seal of the United States, Department of State Publication 8900 (Washington: Department of State, 1978)

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