The story turns out to be half-true, which is more than we can say about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree, but less true than say, Alexander Hamilton being of illegitimate birth.
Here’s the deal.
Franklin praised the turkey as “a bird of courage” and a “true original native of America.” He also said it was a better representative of the new country than the bald eagle, which he called “a bird of bad moral character” that steals fish from hawks and “a rank coward” easily cowed by sparrows. Franklin made these statements in a private letter to his daughter, Sarah Bache, in January 1784.
Franklin called the bald eagle “a bird of bad moral character” and “a rank coward.”
Franklin starts out by discussing an image of an eagle on a medal from a patriotic organization called the Society of the Cincinnati begun by a group of Revolutionary War officers. He soon goes off on a bit of a tangent about the eagle representing the United States in general. When Franklin, then in France, wrote to his daughter in Philadelphia it had been nearly two years since the Great Seal of the United States had been adopted by the federal government. The front of the seal featured a bald eagle holding an olive branch in its right talon and 13 arrows in its left, among other design elements. It was a bit disingenuous of Franklin to complain about the eagle’s new prestigious position since in the summer of 1776 he served on the initial committee with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson that was put in charge of designing the Great Seal.
The Great Seal was meant to visually represent the beliefs and values of the new nation and today continues to be used to authenticate important documents issued by the federal government. Franklin had the opportunity to elevate the wild turkey’s status but instead suggested a Biblical scene for the seal. Franklin’s submission was an image of Moses parting the Red Sea and the Pharaoh and his army being drowned, with the motto: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” A far cry from a wild turkey. Franklin didn’t serve on the second design committee in 1780 or the third in 1782, which came up with the final design that elevated the bald eagle to its hallowed status.
The front of the Great Seal of the United States featuring a bald eagle. Wikimedia Commons.
Franklin also publicly suggested a rattlesnake as a potential national symbol. In a 1775 letter printed in the Pennsylvania Journal Franklin said that the snake was a good representative of America’s “temper and conduct” and stood for vigilance and “true courage.”
While, based on Franklin’s letter to his daughter, he was a big fan of the wild turkey (though it’s worth noting he said he found them to be “a little vain and silly,”) it seems the story about him campaigning for the bird to be our nation’s symbol is nothing more than horse feathers.