by Nick Thomas
Many images symbolize the greatness of the United States, and around July 4 the eagle comes to mind. But it’s not just Americans who have always admired the grand bird. The ancient Sumerians, the Romans, and Napoleon all borrowed the awe-inspiring eagle as a symbol of their own greatness.
So it’s not difficult to see why, some two centuries ago, the bald eagle was adopted as an official emblem of the United States. It was a natural choice for a proud, young nation about to spread its own wings of freedom and make its mark on the world.
Bald eagles are, of course, anything but bald. According to the livescience website, “it gets its name because its white head against its dark brown body makes it seem bald from a distance.” While the bird was named by colonists who also admired its glorious white head and neck feathers, not all our early statesmen revered the bald eagle.
In a 1784 letter to his daughter, Benjamin Franklin wrote rather disparagingly of the bald eagle. According to a 2013 article on the smithsonian.com site, Franklin wrote: “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character…. The little King Bird not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district….The turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.”
Whether or not Franklin was displaying his aptitude for satire, he never seriously suggested installing the turkey as our National Bird. Any lack of enthusiasm for the bald eagle was possibly due to a misunderstanding of the bird’s behavior – small birds are no threat to bald eagles, although the latter may be chased by their smaller relatives attempting to protect their young.
But what if Franklin’s musings had prevailed and the eagle had been replaced in favor of the turkey? The entire symbolic culture of the country could have evolved very differently.
Wild turkeys might have appeared on the Great Seal of the United States, on U.S. coinage, bank notes, stamps, and other symbols of America.
Eagle Scouts might today be called Turkey Scouts, while golfers hitting a rare three holes under par would exclaim, “A double turkey!”
Presidential addresses would be delivered from behind a White House lectern featuring a turkey on the Great Seal – although given the history of some Oval Office occupants, that might not seem entirely inappropriate.
Even the American space program would’ve been affected. When Neil Armstrong sent the first message from the Apollo 11 lunar module after landing on the moon in 1969, he surely would have choked on the words, “The Turkey has Landed!”
Fortunately, the eagle prevailed.
As it sweeps down from lofty mountain peaks, the bald eagle’s wings of freedom cast a shadow of beauty across the land. The great bird’s proud independence will always be a powerful symbol that embodies the strength and freedom of America.
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala, and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 700 newspapers and magazines.