Tucked away in a corner of my working drawing for my ArtPrize piece The Great Seal is a disgruntled turkey, giving the resplendent, American bald eagle the evils. The turkey isn’t there merely as whimsical nod to the tradition of Thanksgiving. It’s a reference to a debate that was played out when the young America was selecting and developing the emblems which are now an intrinsic part of its identity.
In 1782, the bald eagle was adopted as an official emblem of the American colonies. The eagle was chosen because it evinces majestic beauty, great strength, and longevity, and, like the rattlesnake of the Gadsden Flag, it is native to North America. Yet though the eagle is sanctioned as America’s national bird, there were some in the 18th century who felt it was a misguided choice. Benjamin Franklin was amongst the dissenters:
I wish that the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country, he is a bird of bad moral character, he does not get his living honestly… [Too] lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk, and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to its nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him…. Besides he is a rank coward; the little kingbird, 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…of America… For a truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America… a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards, who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on.
Franklin’s cheerleading for the humble turkey notwithstanding, the eagle was given its vote of approval on 20th June, 1782, when it became the central feature of the nascent Great Seal. The birth of this famous emblem was troubled and protracted, however.
In 1776, after the thirteen colonies had voted to declare independence from Great Britain, the Second Continental Congress decided it should have an official seal for use on treatises and international agreements. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams convened as a committee to design a seal of the United States. To help them out they recruited Pierre Eugene du Simitiere, an artist from Philadelphia. His design consisted of six sections representing the six countries whose people had colonised the thirteen States, namely England, Scotland, Ireland, Holland, France, and Germany. However, the only portion of the design Congress approved was the motto E Pluribus Unum (‘Out of many, one’), which seems to have been suggested by Jefferson. The motto was most probably borrowed from the title page of the London periodical The Gentleman’s Magazine. Another source of inspiration might have been the Continental coinage designed by Franklin, featuring the legend We Are One.
A second design committee was assembled in 1780, and this time Francis Hopkinson – who had a hand in designing the American flag – was called on to assist. His first design included a native American warrior, a shield with red and white stripes, and a crest of thirteen stars. But the committee chose his second design, which replaced the native American with a soldier. Congress, however, was still not impressed.
In May of 1782, a third committee was formed. Heraldry expert William Barton submitted an idea which included a rooster in the crest, but its complexity failed to strike a chord. His second design consisted of a pyramid, the Eye of Providence, and all manner of other devices. Yet again, Congress turned up its collective nose.
In June, Congress looked to its Secretary, Charles Thomson, to come up with the goods. Thomson selected elements of designs proposed by all the previous committees, and hit upon an eagle as a symbol of ‘supreme power and authority’. He also included the striped shield, the olive branch and arrows, the Latin motto, and the constellation of stars with their cloudy halo – all the components of the now famous Great Seal. Incidentally, the olive branch and arrows may have been suggested by Franklin, who owned an emblem book showing an eagle alongside these symbols. Many states had already used eagles on their coats of arms, such as New York State from 1778.
Congress approved Thomson’s idea on the same day it was submitted – 20th June, 1782. His page of explanatory notes remains the Great Seal’s official description to this day. Thomson said the imagery symbolized ‘Independence’ because the striped shield is ‘born on the breast of an American Eagle without any other supporters, to denote that the United States of America ought to rely on their own Virtue.’
But it was not until 1787 that the bald eagle was officially ratified as the emblem of the United States. As the national bird, the eagle has appeared on all official seals, as well as on most coinage, paper money, and postage stamps. The eagles on coinage have been shown in a variety of forms and postures. Also, there is great variation in the species depicted, and many complain that most of these representations show the wider-ranging golden eagle rather than the bald eagle. Meanwhile, the famous ten-dollar gold piece shows the ‘double eagle’.
Aside from the dubious legend concerning the eagle crest atop George Washington’s coat of arms being a source of inspiration, it is also said the bird was chosen because the noise of battle at one of the first engagements of the War of Independence awoke roosting bald eagles in the vicinity. They flew from their nests, circled the heads of the combatants, and cried raucously. It was suggested later they were ‘shrieking for freedom’.