Did Benjamin Franklin Really Want to Make the Turkey America's National Bird?

There's a story that starts circulating through the United States every Thanksgiving, around the time that somebody starts carving into the main event. "You know, Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be the national bird, not the bald eagle!" Then everybody laughs, gorges on poultry, and wakes up seven hours later. Except that story is maybe about 15 percent true. Here's how it really happened.

Which Bird is the Word?

First things first, let's just cover what's true about this story. Benjamin Franklin really did write a letter in which he bemoaned the suitability of the eagle as a national mascot. Here's the passage that everybody loves to quote:

"For my own I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a fish and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him."

A couple of paragraphs later, he completes his thought with the rest of this myth:

"For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal 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."

So there you go. Case closed. That's the whole story, and it turns out Benjamin Franklin really did think that the turkey would have been a better bird. Wait, what was that? A second part of this article? Alright, let's do some debunking.

A Deception Most Fowl

So about that letter that Ben wrote — it came two years after the decision about the national seal had already been made. And he wasn't really talking about the national bird to begin with. And it was all kind of an extended, bird-based pun anyway.

So you need some backstory first. After the Revolutionary War, many of the veteran officers formed a fraternity known as the Society of Cincinnati. It wasn't an uncontroversial group. Some people complained that membership was hereditary, and others thought that it shouldn't have used Latin in its official seal. But one complaint came up over and over: the eagle on the seal looked too much like a turkey.

So Franklin's rumination on the appropriateness of the eagle as a symbol of the nation is more of an aside in a larger conversation about birds and nations in general. And one of the other complaints he levels at the eagle takes on a clear secondary meaning when you realize he's talking about actual Revolutionary soldiers.

"Besides [the eagle] 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."

Get it? King bird? By the time he starts talking about the turkey — and he's clearly talking about the "turkey" that appears on the Society of Cincinnati's seal — it's evident that he is continuing the joke. The members of the society really didn't "hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards" even if they might be "a little vain and silly" with their Latin grandiosity. When it comes down to it, we're thinking that Benjamin Franklin didn't actually have very strong feelings about the best bird for the job — personally, we're voting for the Velociraptor.

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Want to know more about the most curious Founding Father? Check out "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life" by Walter Isaacson, the author of "Einstein" and "Steve Jobs". We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Benjamin Franklin: Founding Nerd

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 5, 2017

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