Some Reflections on Turkeys and Eagles

Back when the United States was established, a debate took place about what symbols might best represent the values and spirit of the new country. One of the most distinguished of the group that fought for independence, Benjamin Franklin, proposed that the turkey be our National Bird. He was talking, of course, about the wild turkey, not the domesticated and bred variety that graces our Thanksgiving table.

When the eagle was selected, Ben Franklin, the man who discovered how to harness and tame lightning; who invented the bifocals, the rocking chair and the Franklin stove; who helped write the Constitution and gained the help of the French at a critical moment in the American revolution, wrote in a letter to his daughter:

"For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen 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 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.

"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 . . .

"And the Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & 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."

More than 200 years after Franklin penned these words we might consider that the American eagle is almost always shown with weapons in his claws. He reflects America's warrior spirit. The turkey, on the other hand, is the bird we choose to share when we celebrate peaceful community and give thanks to nature and our brother and sister human beings for helping us to survive and flourish.

David Morris is co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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