There’s a song in the musical 1776, which features Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams arguing about what what bird should be used as America’s national symbol. Adams suggests it should be an eagle, Jefferson suggests a dove, and Ben Franklin suggests…a turkey. This song – called ‘The Egg’ – is such a delight, like the rest of the musical. There are some lovely three-part harmonies from the three men as they bicker good-naturedly about what bird it should be.
Adams argues passionately for the eagle, saying it’s a ‘majestic bird’. Franklin disagrees, saying the eagle is ‘a scavenger, a thief and a coward, a symbol of over ten centuries of European mischief.’
‘The turkey is a truly noble bird,’ Franklin argues in the song. ‘Native American, a source of sustenance for our original settlers, an incredibly brave fellow…’
Of course, in real life, as in the song, it was decided that the bald eagle would be the national bird. But, with Thanksgiving coming up, this song got me wondering if Franklin really did want our national bird to be a turkey…rather than an eagle?
Well the short answer, my friends, is that it’s a myth.
The Franklin Institute writes this:
The story about Benjamin Franklin wanting the National Bird to be a turkey is just a myth. This false story began as a result of a letter Franklin wrote to his daughter criticizing the original eagle design for the Great Seal, saying that it looked more like a turkey. In the letter, Franklin wrote that the “Bald Eagle…is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly…[he] is too lazy to fish for himself.”
However, while the story as a whole might be a myth, as you can see from that quote, Franklin didn’t seem to like eagles very much, calling the eagle a bird of ‘bad moral character’ because he’s a scavenger. Franklin also writes that the turkey is “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.” So, the Franklin Institute explains, while Franklin didn’t suggest the turkey for one of American’s national symbols, he did defend the turkey against the bald eagle.
Franklin goes so far as to say: ‘For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country.’
So 1776 gets it ‘wrong’ in the sense that Franklin didn’t actually suggest the Turkey for the national bird, BUT they also get it quite right in the sense that Franklin did say turkeys would have been a better symbol for the country. I’m not sure how seriously we should take Franklin’s musings – it seems like he was, in typical Ben Franklin fashion (and fashion of the time), kind of intelligently waffling. But maybe he was actually disappointed, I don’t know!
A lot of the lyrics of the song ‘The Egg’ are quite evidently paraphrases from Franklin’s letter to his daughter. For example, in ‘The Egg’, fictional Franklin calls the turkey ‘an incredibly brave fellow who would not flinch at attacking a regiment of Englishmen single-handedly.’ And, in the real letter, Franklin says the turkey is ‘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.’ The writers are clearly playing off the real quote. (And I love this image of a turkey attacking a British red coat – it’s just so goofy and also so Ben Franklin to me somehow!)
So, as with most historical fiction, it’s quite hard to draw clear cut lines between something being ‘accurate’ and ‘inaccurate’. This small example from 1776 just goes to show that something can, in a way, be accurate and inaccurate at the same time!
I wish a happy Thanksgiving to my American readers – whether you eat turkey or not. If you do, you can tell your family about this story! (I don’t eat meat, as I mentioned in my last blog post, so I usually eat something called ‘Tofurkey’ if I’m celebrating Thanksgiving/Christmas in the USA – it’s actually really good! I know that sounds impossible, given the silly name, but it is! This year I’m in Scotland and will be having a nut roast, which is another good option for those of us who don’t wish to eat Ben Franklin’s ‘respectable’ bird!)
What do you think about the turkey vs. the eagle as a national symbol? What is the bird (or national animal/flower etc.) of your country/state and do you think it was a good pick?
PS If you find yourself in the mood for some poetry tomorrow, I’ll be doing a reading at the American University of Dubai tomorrow (Tuesday November 24). It’s at 6 pm Dubai time, so you’d have to calculate what time that is for you! It’ll be a one hour poetry reading over Zoom, and it’s free and open to the public. I’ll mostly be reading poems out of my new poetry pamphlet published this summer, Anastasia, Look in the Mirror. If you fancy coming along – here is the Zoom registration link!
- ‘American Myths: Benjamin Franklin’s Turkey and the Presidential Seal’ from The Smithsonian Magazine
- 1776 the musical (the film version was released in 1972 and it’s great!)
Today’s Featured Image is Alfred Schönian (1856-1936) — ‘Colorful Feathered, 1936’, accessed via Wikimedia.
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!
3 thoughts on “Madeira Mondays: Benjamin Franklin and the ‘respectable’ turkey”
Another great post and turkishly topical! Good luck tomorrow!!
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Haha thanks so much!!
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You are most welcome!
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