Benjamin Franklin, the turkey and the bald eagle

Benjamin Franklin Duplessis

benjamin franklin by duplessis

Here is what Benjamin Franklin writes his daughter, Sarah Blache, on the topic of the Society of the Cincinnati. He opposes, of course, the very notion of establishing hereditary honors in the United States, and also discusses the insignia of this organization, which include a bald eagle:

Others object, writes Franklin, to the bald eagle as looking too much like a dindon, or turkey. For my own part, I wish 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; you may have seen him perched on some dead tree, where, 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 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 and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy. 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 properemblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America, who have driven all the kingbirds from our country; though exactly fit for that order of knights, which the French call Chevaliers d’Industrie.

I am, on this account, not displeased that the figure is not known as a bald eagle, but looks more like a turkey. For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America. Eagles have been found in all countries, but the turkey was peculiar to ours; the first of the species seen in Europe, being brought to France by the Jesuits from Canada, and served up at the wedding table of Charles the Ninth. He is, besides, (though a little vain and silly, it is true, but not the worse emblem for that,) 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.

I am not much of a biologist and cannot opine on the “bad moral character” of the bald eagle, which I have never seen in the flesh, perched on a dead tree or otherwise.

I have, however, admired wild turkeys at Zion National Park, where they walk around in groups during the day and roost in the tall trees at night, unafraid of visitors. Magnificent, majestic birds indeed. Ah, if only Ben Franklin had had his way about the turkey as a national emblem, and many other things . . .

We will keep to French artists to illustrate this post. The portrait of Franklin as a cultivateur américain is by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis, painted during Franklin’s momentous embassy in Paris. The wild turkey is part of the Birds of America series by Jean-Jacques Audubon.

Happy Thanksgiving to all! (Or should we say, with Art Buchwald, Merci Donnant?)

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