Ben Franklin and the Turkey

After the American Revolution, former American officers in that struggle created a fraternal organization called the Society of Cinncinatus, named after the Roman consul and dictator, a constitutional office of the Roman Republic in emergencies, who saved Rome through his efforts in the fifth century BC and then retired to his humble farm.  The Society selected as its symbol a bald eagle.  In a letter to his daughter Sally Bache on January 26, 1784, no doubt with his tongue placed firmly in his cheek, Dr. Franklin indicated that he thought another bird would have been a better choice.

Others object 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 perch’d 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 and Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not 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, tho’ exactly fit for that Order of Knights which the French call Chevaliers d’Industrie. I am on this account not displeas’d 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 serv’d up at the Wedding Table of Charles the ninth. He is besides, tho’ a little vain and 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.

I rather dislike to disagree with Benjamin Franklin, but although the Turkey has several delicious qualities, I cannot imagine having it as our national symbol.  If Congress is ever looking for a symbol however…

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  1. While he is a dastard by nature, the bald eagle is far more photogenic (see paintings of him clutching arrows, etc.) than the wild turkey. And, the brave, warlike eagle myths endure.
    Unlike the bald eagle, the wild turkey is hugely intelligent and prospers without stealing from, or assistance from, anything or anybody. Ask any turkey hunter about the big bird’s intelligence. The domestic turkey, that we eat, not so smart: rumor has it that they need to be taught how to drink water.
    Tomorrow, offer up praise and gratitude to God. Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. There is an old rhyme (quoted by Rudyard Kipling in Puck of Pook’s Hill)
    “Turkeys, heresy, hops and beer
    Came into England, all in one year.”
    The year is 1524, of which St Thomas More remarked, “Heresy and beer came hopping into England that same year.” The pun is based on the fact that beer (as opposed to ale) was flavoured with hops.
    Now there is a Scottish rhyme
    “On St Thomas the Divine
    Kill all turkeys, geese and swine.”
    It must predate the Reformation of 1569, when saints’ days and the keeping of Yule (as Christmas was called here) were both abolished. The St Thomas referred to is the Apostle, whose feast falls on 21 December. Our ancestors obviously did not believe in hanging their poultry.

  3. It was surprising for me to learn that the selection of the American bald eagle as the nation’s symbol came as a result of its choice as the symbol of the Society of Cinncinatus.
    That society, incidentally the nation’s oldest patriotic organization, is open only to American AND French descendants of participants in the Revolutionary War ; it was an omission for the author of this article not to have mentioned that the “…former American officers in that struggle created a fraternal organization called the Society of Cinncinatus …” WITH THEIR FRENCH ALLIES WHO WERE ALSO FORMER OFFICERS IN THAT STRUGGLE ! [From the society’s website : “…Hereditary members of the Society of the Cincinnati are qualified male descendants of commissioned officers who served in the Continental Army or Navy and their French counterparts…”]

    Incidentally, President George Washington, when the Continental Armies (and their French allies) had defeated the British, and again when his terms in office as President of the United States were completed, retired to his farm in Virginia to lead the life of a gentleman farmer. Even in his lifetime, there had been comparisons between George Washington and the legendary Cincinnatus, as for example in Lord Byron’s “Ode to Napoleon” – in which Washington is referred to as “the Cincinnatus of the West”.

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