Essay: Dispelling the Ben Franklin Turkey Myth

Note: First appeared on Quail Bell Magazine July 4th, 2015.

Here at Quail Bell, we love nostalgia and history. So while most people are off enjoying fireworks, picnics, and parades, I decided to do some research of our country’s history. My search narrowed down to “fun facts” related to our Founding Fathers, more specifically, Ben Franklin. 
A widely circulated story is that of Ben Franklin’s apparent push for the turkey to become our national bird and to be the design for the Great Seal. As hilarious it would be to have the traditional Thanksgiving meal as a symbol of freedom, valor, and democracy, that sadly it isn’t the case. According to Jimmy Stamp of the Smithsonian, the myth partially stems from theNovember 24th, 1962 cover of The New Yorker, which features an illustration of a turkey on the national emblem as opposed to the eagle. But the myth primarily comes from people taking thefollowing letter, written by Franklin in January, 1784 to his daughter Sally, horrendously out of context:

“For my own part 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.

“With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. 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…

“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & 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.”

In the first paragraph, Franklin does express disdain for the eagle, calling it a “bird of bad moral character” and a “coward.” However, Franklin never proposed the turkey to be on the seal or as a national symbol. As a matter of fact, his proposal for the Great Seal never included a bird.Franklin’s design depicted a scene from Exodus with Moses and Pharaoh to symbolize the fight against tyranny.

As for the “figure” mentioned in the third paragraph, is the image on the Society of the Cincinnati Medal that was widely mistaken as a turkey. Franklin noted that he was “not displeased that the [image is mistaken for a turkey],” calling it “a much more respectable bird” when compared with the bald eagle.

So, the firm answer is Franklin never advocated for the turkey to be on the Great Seal or as the national bird. Though he may have preferred turkeys over eagles, he was not as passionate about it as people believed.

While we have since updated our emblems, we at Quail Bell would personally recommend the quail for the Great Seal, should there ever be a need for a fresh design. 

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