A Letter to Doctor Franklin: The Founding Father Who Bequeathed to Us a Turkey of an Idea

Benjamin Franklin and His Turkey

My Dear Doctor Franklin,

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, I thought I’d sit right down and write you a letter. Since you were famous for words, both for the written as well as the spoken variety, I have taken the opportunity—nay, the liberty!—of sending some thoughts your way about this uniquely American of holidays which, I am sure, you know something about (well, at least about the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock and their historic repast).

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At the outset, let me express my admiration for your person; early American history is one of my favorite historical periods and the lives and stories of the Founding Fathers are endlessly fascinating for me, including yours. But I must say, I owe you so much—for it is you who started out as a printer of broadsheets and books, and you went on from there, actually learning about independence when you left your brother’s shop and decided you didn’t want to be beholden to anyone, putting one foot in front of the other and leaving the confines of Boston for the wonders of Philadelphia, eventually reaching that famed city with nothing but a few pennies in your pocket and day-old bread under your arm. Philadelphia’s—and eventually the Nation’s—gain was Boston’s loss.  

It is you who started the first lending library and, as you got older, you created the perfect spectacle in making eyeglasses that accommodated long distance and near distance sight, with adjustable lenses, ones that you could flap up-and-down. (If only you could have been around for the appearance of “progressive” lenses of today…You would be shocked at the “progressive” prices of them! That really would give the “Sons of Liberty” something to protest against, among other things!) So, books, newspapers, libraries and eyeglasses—thanks to you, I and numerous others through the ages have benefitted from your genius and ingenuity. You really were the American Renaissance man: philosopher, statesman, scientist, inventor, printer, librarian, postmaster, bon vivant…The list is endless. And of course, you helped guide the Revolution and the Constitution, which we still live under today. (As you famously replied to a questioner when the Constitution was about to be adopted, about what kind of country we were going to have: “A republic, if you can keep it.”) Oh, and I also wondered why you and John Adams didn’t hit it off in those Revolutionary days; but, thankfully, you both worked to achieve our independence under very trying conditions—even if you both acted like Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, a colonial “Odd Couple”…

No, I could write about a million things when it comes to you. But it is not the obvious historical matters (much as I would like to ask you about, but there is not enough space or time to do so) that is the reason for my writing to you. In all my reading about you, the man whom Catherine Drinker Bowen called (which was the title of her biographical sketches and essays about you) “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” there has always been one thing I could never figure out and that is why you believed passionately that the turkey should be our national symbol instead of the American eagle. If you will excuse a little baseball lingo, you’ve almost always hit a home run every time you were at bat, but a turkey? I never could understand that!

As we all know, the American bald eagle was selected to be the representation of the new American nation in the Great Seal of the United States that was adopted on June 20, 1782. You had to acquiesce, but you did not agree. In a letter to your daughter Sally, written on January 26, 1784, you wrote: “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.”

You continue: "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...”

And: "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."

And so you wrote, said and believed.

It is just as well that the Eagle won out to become our emblematic Great Seal. The turkey was one of your better ideas, though: at one time or another you suggested the rattlesnake or a biblical representation of Moses and the Pharaoh as befitting the colonial struggle. You were on the original committee tasked to come up with the national symbol. You, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (there he is, again!) couldn’t come up with an adequate solution (further proof that committees, even with brilliant members, don’t always come up with the best solutions…).

When you think about it, dear Doctor Franklin, it ended up rather well,  as far as the acquisition of American symbols was concerned. We have both the bald Eagle and the wild turkey, for they are intertwined in American mythology. So, you got what you wanted, in a way. Your choice did not become the Great Seal, but it became a symbol for something better: a feast of—and for—Thanksgiving. And, that is not a bad thing.

It could have turned out radically different, if we had followed the example of Queen Elizabeth I. There is the story that she had been eating a dinner of roast goose when word came that her military had won a great battle. Elated, she ordered another goose be cooked as a means of celebration. So, you see, Doctor Franklin, everything turns out differently from what was planned—things don’t end up as we envision it; something better appears. So it is with nations, symbols, and dinners.

So, in the spirit of the day, a very Happy Thanksgiving to you, dear Doctor Franklin! And, please, whatever you do, don’t throw a turkey leg at Mr. Adams!

Joseph McAuley is an assistant editor at America.

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