On June 20, 1782, the Continental Congress adopted the design of the Great Seal of the United States, which includes our national bird, the bald eagle, holding 13 arrows and a 13-leaf olive branch in his talons. The decision to make the bald eagle the national bird took nearly six years; it was ultimately chosen because many of the Founding Fathers compared their new republic to the Roman republic, which featured the eagle in its symbols.
There was one Founding Father who was not happy about the choice of the bald eagle as our national bird, however. Benjamin Franklin felt that the turkey should be the nation’s symbol. In a letter to his daughter a year and a half after the decision, Franklin 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.
“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 Birdnot 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.”
Although Franklin makes his argument here, it is unclear whether he ever actually said this to the Congress, as no records exist of his dissention. Still, his thoughts on the subject, through this letter, have become legendary.