Like millions of Americans, I spent yesterday baking and eating all sorts of food which is traditional to Thanksgiving. I have always loved the cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes, I enjoy the pumpkin pie with lots of whipped cream, but for me the pièce de résistance is the turkey. However, if Congress had heeded Benjamin Franklin, we would probably not be eating turkey at Thanksgiving.
The story begins in July 1776 when the second Continental Congress appointed a committee composed of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to design an official seal for our new nation. Although the committee submitted a design by August of that year which included 13 shields each with a state name, the eye of Providence, and the motto “E Pluribus Unum,” Congress did not approve this seal. Rather they appointed subsequent committees in 1780 and 1782 to design a seal. There were a vast variety of proposed symbols including various goddesses, Roman soldiers and Indian warriors. The final design was assembled by Charles Thomson, secretary of Congress, from pieces put forth by all three committees. It was Thomson who inserted a native American bald eagle into the design, replacing the proposed imperial eagle suggested by the 1782 committee. Thomson thought that the U.S. seal should include something uniquely American and saw the bald eagle as a symbol of freedom, liberty and independence.
Franklin, however, thought otherwise. In a letter to his daughter in January 1776, he characterized the bald eagle as a bird of “bad, moral character” and “a rank coward.” He also argued that the turkey was
…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 serv’d up at the Wedding Table of Charles the ninth. 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.
However, Franklin in his encomium on the turkey, hit on an important point – the turkey makes for good eating. Fit for a king in fact! Had the turkey been chosen as the national symbol, it is very unlikely we eat turkey on any occasion. I, for one, am glad that we still honor the native turkey on Thanksgiving, rejoicing in its flavor. And even if the bald eagle has a bad character, he still looks magnificent perching in a tree, or posing on our seal.