Ben Franklin favored a turkey

ON this date in 1782, the Confederation Congress adopted the Great Seal of the United States. Most Americans today don't think much about the seal, even when they see it on the dollar bill, but during the American Revolution much time and effort went into its design. In fact, on the same day that the Declaration of Independence was approved, a committee consisting of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson was appointed to come up with a plan. When it reported six weeks later, Congress scrapped the proposal except for the Eye of Providence and the words, E Pluribus Unum. Franklin, who appeared to take the most interest in the work, described the other aspects of the rejected plan: ``Pharaoh sitting in an open chariot, a crown on his head and a sword in his hand, passing through the divided waters of the Red Sea in pursuit of the Israelites. Rays from a pillar of fire in the cloud, expressive of the Divine presence and command, beaming on Moses, who stands on the shore and, extending his hand over the sea, causes it to overflow Pharaoh. Motto: `Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.' ''

A second committee did work intermittently for two years, but it took a third one working with designer William Barton and Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson to put on the finishing touches. To be sure, it was an impressive seal that was adopted, with the eagle holding center stage clasping an olive branch as well as a sheaf of arrows to signify both peace and war. Across the eagle's breast is a shield with 13 stripes, and from the eagle's beak is a ribbon with the words E Pluribus Unum. On the reverse side of the seal is a solid stone pyramid, with the Eye of Providence at the top. Two Latin mottoes are conspicuous: ANNUIT COEPTIS (``He has favored our undertakings''), and NOVUS ORDO SECULORUM (``A New Cycle of Centuries'').

Like so many other aspects of the Revolution, there was considerable agreement from the nation's leaders on the final design. However, there was not unanimity. Franklin, who was in Paris at the time, wasn't impressed with the bald eagle. ``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 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.''

Of course, Franklin had a bird of another feather as a substitute: ``The turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America. . . . He is (though a little vain and silly, it is true, but not the worst 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.''

Fortunately, Franklin had the good sense to accept the majority's will on the matter.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.