No, The Turkey Was Not Going to Be The National Bird

By Sarah Warren on November 24, 2016

In honor of the bird that most of us consumed this Thursday, let’s reexamine the common Thanksgiving lore about the turkey almost becoming America’s national bird. Legend has it that Ben Franklin, known for being obscurely intellectual and contentious, proposed the turkey as the national bird of America and the idea was shot down by congress. This is less than true.

In reality, Franklin’s proposal for the Great Seal was a scene from the Book of Exodus where the Red Sea drowns the Egyptian army - no feathered creatures in sight. While it makes a nice picture to think about an aging Ben Franklin squabbling with congress about the national bird, it just didn’t happen. In fact, it took congress until 1782 to approve the design we see today, created by Charles Thomson.

The story of Ben Franklin and the turkey doesn’t end there, though. He did, in fact, write a letter to his daughter about a year after the final design was passed, which said, in part, “I wish the eagle had not been chosen as the representative of this country. He is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly. You may have seen him perched in some dead tree where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing hawk and, when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish and is bearing it to his nest for his young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes the fish. With all this injustice, he is never in good case.” Franklin thought the turkey was “a much more respectable bird and a true native of America,” if “a little vain and silly.”

Simply put, while Ben Franklin would have preferred the turkey over the eagle, he voiced this opinion after the fact. We have no record of him arguing for the turkey as the national bird in congress, where he headed a congressional committee made up of himself, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson to design the Great Seal. Most likely, this often-misconstrued letter was a result of Franklin’s relentless love of satire. While his true thoughts on the national bird are unknown, it’s unlikely that he felt as passionately about it as his letter makes it seem.

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