Don’t Tread on Me
By Ken Zurski
Thanks to the sight of its majestic flight, broad 8-foot wing span, and contrasting white head, the bald eagle became the symbol of America when it first appeared on the Great Seal adopted by Congress in 1782.
A year and a half later it had a major dissenter in Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin saw the image of the bird on the badge of the Society of the Cincinnati of America, a military fraternity of revolutionary war officers, and thought the drawing of the bald eagle on the badge looked more like a turkey, a fair and reasonable complaint considering the image looked like, well, a turkey.
But it was the use of the bald eagle as the symbol of America that most infuriated Franklin. “[The bald eagle] is a bird of bad moral character,” he wrote to his daughter. “He does not get his Living honestly.”
Franklin had a point. It was a a matter of principal. The bald eagle was a notorious thief, he implied. Here’s why: A good glider and observer, the bald eagle often watches other birds, like the more agile Osprey (appropriately called a fish hawk) dive into water to seize its prey. The bald eagle then assaults the Osprey and forces it to release the catch, grabs the prey in mid-air, and returns to its nest with the stolen goods. “With all this injustice,” Franklin wrote as only he could, “[The bald eagle] is a rank coward.”
Franklin then expounded on the turkey comparison: “For the truth, the turkey is a much more respectable bird…a true original Native of America who 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 suggestion of the turkey as the nation’s symbol, however, is a myth. He never suggested such a thing. He only compared the bald eagle to a turkey because the drawing reminded him of a turkey. Franklin’s argument was the choice of bald eagle not in support of the turkey he called “vain and silly.” Some even claim his comments and comparisons were slyly referring to members of the Society, of whom he thought was an elitist group comprised of “brave and honest” men but on a chivalric order, similar to the ruling country to which they helped defeat. This might explain why Franklin’s assessment of the bald eagle in the letter is based solely on human behavior, not a bird’s.
But was it a fair assessment?
Ornithologists today provide a more scientific and sensible explanation. In the”Book of North American Birds” the bald eagle gets its just due, for as a bird, it’s actions are justifiable. “Nature has her own yardstick, and in nature’s eyes the bald eagle is blameless. What we perceive as laziness is actually competence.” Being able to catch a “waterfowl in flight and rabbits on the run,” the book suggests is a noble and rewarded skill.
Perhaps, a better choice for the nation’s top bird, might have been the golden eagle, who unlike the bald eagle captures its own prey, mostly small rodents, but is powerful enough to attack larger animals like deer or antelope on rare occasions. (Its reputation today is tainted somewhat by rumors that it snatches unsuspecting domestic animals, like goats or small dogs.) But golden eagles don’t want attention. They shy away from more populated areas and appear to be “lazy” only because they can hunt with such precision and ease they don’t really have to ruffle their feathers. Plus, golden eagles were already symbolic. History finds them “perched on banners of leading armies, the fists of emperors and figuring in religious cultures.”
The bald eagle, by comparison, would be truly American.
Perhaps when Franklin made the disparaging comments against the bald eagle he was also harboring a nearly decade old grudge.
In 1775, a year before America’s independence, Franklin wrote the Pennsylvania Journal and suggested an animal be used as a symbol of a new country, one that had the “temper and conduct of America,” he explained. He had something in mind. “She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders;” he wrote. “She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage”
Eventually the image Franklin suggested did appear on a $20 bill issued in 1778, adopted for use as the official seal of the War Office, and may have been the inspiration for the Gadsden flag with the inscription, “Don’t Tread On Me.”
But it never officially became the preferred symbol of the new country.
Franklin’s choice: the rattlesnake.