Happy Thanksgiving Everyone! Now, Please Pass The Bald Eagle

According to The New Yorker, one of the most popular Thanksgiving-related myths in American history is the notion that Benjamin Franklin preferred the turkey as the national symbol of the United States, over the bald eagle. Is there any truth to it?

It’s purportedly just a myth. After the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, they next tasked Franklin — along with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — with designing a seal to represent the new country. Given the opportunity to choose a national symbol, Founding Father Franklin never suggested a turkey.

The story that he proposed the turkey as the national symbol began to circulate in American newspapers around the time of the country’s centennial and are based on a January 26, 1784, letter in which he panned the eagle and extolled the virtues of the gobbler to his daughter, Sarah. In doing so, he was not delivering a critique of the Great Seal but of a new medal issued by the Society of the Cincinnati, an association of Continental Army veterans. “For my own part I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country,” he wrote. Franklin argued that the eagle was “a bird of bad moral character” that “does not get his living honestly” because it steals food from the fishing hawk and is “too lazy to fish for himself.”

In contrast, Franklin called the turkey “a much more respectable bird” and “a true original native of America.” While he considered the eagle “a rank coward,” Franklin believed the turkey to be “a bird of courage” that “would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.” While the private letter was a spirited promotion of the turkey over the eagle, Franklin never made his views public, and when the chance had been given to him to officially propose a symbol for the U.S. eight years earlier, his idea was biblical, not avian.

Franklin’s turkey story also gained popularity in November 1962, when The New Yorker featured a cover illustration by Anatole Kovarsky of the Great Seal of the United States with a turkey in the place of the bald eagle. That same decade, the musical 1776 premiered on Broadway and featured a song called “The Egg,” where Franklin, Jefferson and Adams are portrayed comparing the birth of a new nation through the Declaration of Independence to an egg hatching. This launches a debate over which bird should symbolize America: Adams calls for the eagle, Jefferson for the dove and Franklin (of course) for the turkey.

Although Franklin defended the honor of the turkey against the bald eagle, he did not propose it becoming one of America’s most important symbols. But, consider this: if Franklin’s choice of the turkey as the centerpiece of the Great Seal of the U.S. would have been enacted by the Continental Congress of 1782 and later given legal protection by a “Turkey Protection Act” like that given the bald eagle in 1940 we would be prohibited from eating turkey on Thanksgiving Day or at any other time. Would we be dining on roasted bald eagle instead?

People have hunted and eaten tons of different animals throughout human history to meet the need for survival or simply satisfy their curiosity. Among those “weird” meats, eagle would attract a lot of attention. Throughout history, in fact, many tribes hunted and ate eagles. However, most of them only did that because of the lack of food sources.

Are you wondering, “What does bald eagle taste like?” It’s reportedly just like any other eagle species and has an unpleasant taste. Some people have tried eating eagle meat and most who did disliked it, as the meat was gamey and a little oily. It’s said you shouldn’t try to eat any meat that comes from animals that often eat fish as this will almost always result in the meat tasting nasty.

You might also ask, “Is it safe to eat eagle meat?” Eagles are muscular birds of prey, the top predator in their genre. Eagles hunt and eat anything from tiny to medium-sized birds and mammals, whether alive or dead. Therefore, is eagle meat edible if eagles even consume dead animals? Yes, but according to richardpantry.com, even when properly prepared and cooked thoroughly to kill bacteria and other pathogens making it safe and a nutritious lean meat, eating it might pose several risks to your health. Certain diseases can transmit from eagles to humans, such as West Nile virus or aspergillosis, a type of fungus usually affecting the respiratory system.

So, count your blessings and enjoy your turkey. And be thankful you’re not eating some other fowl or something foul!

Vince LaBarbera
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Vince LaBarbera

Vince is a Fort Wayne native. He earned a master of science degree in journalism and advertising from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. LaBarbera is retired but continues to enjoy freelance writing and serving the Radio Reading Service of the Allen County Public Library. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer