Ben Franklin v. the Bald Eagle

benfranklin

It’s an odd curiosity of early American history. In a letter to a family member, the coauthor of the Declaration of Independence decides to throw shade at his nation’s new symbol. Why he did this may seem a little perplexing at first. But context is important, especially here. So let’s try to better understand where Benjamin Franklin was coming from in his criticism of the bald eagle.

The Bald Eagle as a U.S. Symbol

The founding father’s 1784 missive was written only about a year and a half after the United States adopted the bald eagle as part of the country’s Great Seal.1 In a bit of historical trivia, Franklin served on the first of three committees dedicated to creating the design.2 Later, he used the seal while acting as a U.S. ambassador in France.3 However, during his post there is also when he penned that infamous letter to his daughter, Mrs. Sarah Bache.

In that piece of overseas correspondence, Franklin declares, “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country.”4 Then the Philadelphian sage states three reasons for his objection, two specifically relating to the creature’s “bad moral character” and a third regarding the popularity and pervasiveness of eagles in general. Overall, he asserts (or appears to) that the bald eagle is an unfit symbol for a democratic republic free of monarchic rule and aristocratic ties.

Examining Franklin’s Case

For Exhibit A, he accuses the bald eagle of being a lazy cheat, apt to forcing the osprey, by means of harassment, to relinquish its catch. And, indeed, Franklin is right about the raptor’s behavior. Though bald eagles will hunt their own fish, they frequently bully food away from other birds. This is evident in the Grand Prize-winning photo from this year’s Audubon Photography Awards; that stunning picture captures a bald eagle ambushing great blue herons.

Thievery, however, is the smallest of problems Franklin has with the bald eagle. Moving on to Exhibit B, he seizes upon what he considers its greatest fault, calling the raptor a “rank coward,” prone to fleeing from “a little king bird, not bigger than a sparrow.” What Franklin meant by “king bird” is not clear,5 but there is some truth in his anecdotal statement. When mobbed by smaller feathered creatures, such as crows and sparrows, many raptors do choose to fly off rather than fight. Bald eagles and other avian predators have little to gain in these situations other than aggravation. Nevertheless, despite being rooted in some truth, Franklin’s description is still quite misleading and incomplete.

Bald eagles are generally aggressive birds. As the founding father acknowledges, they confront and hassle ospreys for their fish. Yet he conspicuously fails to mention that bald eagles also will tangle with their own kind. For instance, they are known to engage in bloody territorial battles. In addition, these raptors will assault other large birds. Not long ago, one attacked a Canada goose, the skirmish documented in a series of photographs.

Franklin’s last gripe regards eagles by and large, and could be related to the birds’ popularity as heraldic figures. His Exhibit C dismisses the bald eagle simply because eagles in general are “found in all countries.” Though he does not build on this point, what the founding father may be alluding to is the eagle’s extensive history as an emblem of ancient empires and aristocratic cultures. For Franklin, such imperial associations, though involving other species, possibly make the bald eagle—and even the golden eagle for that matter—an inappropriate symbol for a democratic nation.

Is There a Better Bird?

When dismissing the bald eagle, Ben Franklin looks to another bird, one he considers “much more respectable.” This is the turkey. Despite conceding the fowl “a little vain and silly,” Franklin asserts that it is fearless enough to defend its farmyard from “a grenadier of the British guards.” Sure, a laughable claim for some, but wild turkeys have indeed been known to attack humans, sometimes even going after mailmen and police officers. The domesticated variety aren’t as intimidating, but don’t underestimate them.

The gobbler has had its share of fans, John James Audubon being the most high-profile. He used the male wild turkey’s image, along with the motto “America My Country,” for his personal seal.6 Yet, unlike Franklin, Audubon had positive things to say about the bald eagle. In his Birds of America, he describes the raptor as a “noble bird” of “great strength, daring, and cool courage.”7 Why shouldn’t both the wild turkey and the bald eagle, large and formidable creatures found throughout much of the United States, be deserving of respect?

The bald eagle/turkey debate unfortunately has long taken on a life of its own. Many people want to choose sides; however, I’d highly recommend not doing so without considering the subject and context of Franklin’s letter. First, he never advocates replacing the bald eagle on the U.S. Great Seal with the turkey. Second, his missive was prompted not by an issue he had with the seal, but by a controversial plan of the Society of the Cincinnati, an American Revolutionary War veterans group. Franklin was concerned that this organization would become, in his words, “an order of hereditary knights.” His letter is devoted to this topic, and the tangents he makes (such as the one involving the bald eagle) are all related to his attack on the organization’s proposal.

What specifically provoked Franklin’s ire was the Society of the Cincinnati’s plan “of establishing ranks of nobility” by bequeathing membership and medals to the current members’ descendants. Like the Great Seal, the medals do feature an eagle. Perhaps Franklin would not have even aired his opinions on the bald eagle or the turkey if not for those medals. The reason he appears to bring up the matter at all is to concur with other critics that the group’s design “looks more like a turkey,” something—if you take Franklin’s words at face value—he actually favors. Perhaps, though, he was being facetious.

A Winning Verdict

Since Franklin’s letter heavily mingles wit, charm, and wisdom, it is questionable at times whether he is being wholly serious or, in parts, satirical. Consider, too, that he was living an ocean away from his fellow citizens. Isn’t it possible that he may have attempted to stir some controversy over the Great Seal to maximize attention to his letter? After all, he clearly had a much more important matter in mind than avian emblematic figures.

Ultimately, let’s not make too much out of Franklin’s commentary on the bald eagle and the turkey. Both are beautiful birds in their own ways and worthy of celebration year-round and during the Fourth of July!

Sources:

  1. U.S. Dept. of State, Bureau of Public Affairs. “The Great Seal of the United States.” Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of State, 2003. p. 1: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/27807.pdf.
  2. U.S. Dept. of State, Bureau of Public Affairs. p. 2.
  3. Anderson, SH. The Most Splendid Carpet. Philadelphia, PA: National Park Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, 1978: https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/inde/anderson/chap5a.htm.
  4. Rising, G. “Benjamin Franklin Talks Turkey” [article includes Franklin’s letter in its entirety]. Nature Watch University at Buffalo: http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~insrisg/nature/nw98/franklinturkey.html.
  5. The “king bird” and similar epithets (e.g., “regulus” and “little king”) have been used since antiquity to describe wren species. However, a better candidate in this case is the eastern kingbird. Since Franklin is also using the term as a metaphor for the British king, he could have had some other bird in mind.
  6. Rhodes, R. John James Audubon: The Making of an American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. p. 273.
  7. Audubon, JJ. “White-headed Eagle,” The Birds of America. National Audubon Society: http://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/white-headed-eagle.

 

Timeless Ditties about Birds

mockingbird

“Hush, little baby, don’t say a word, Pappa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.” Thus starts the classic lullaby. It’s one of the first songs many people ever hear. It’s also one of the oldest.

Orally transmitted, “Hush, Little Baby” was first documented in 1918.1 However, the tune may have much earlier origins, going back to a time when mockingbirds were more common as pets. The creatures were prized as caged songbirds through the 1800s. Praising the singing abilities of mockingbirds over nightingales, John James Audubon noted the popularity of the former as household pets in the United States.2 Among the owners of mockingbirds, Thomas Jefferson appears to have been the most famous. He kept several, including a favorite named “Dick.”3

Mockingbird Mania

Some rather old but well-known lyrical songs have mockingbird themes. For instance, in “Listen to the Mockingbird” (1854), the feathered virtuoso provides comfort and fond remembrances of a deceased loved one. Then there’s Irving Berlin’s “Ragtime Mockingbird” (1912), which consists of a lover’s playful plea for her very own winged music-maker:

Honey, if you buy for me that mockingbird,
I’ll call you names like King Louis the Third,
If you buy for me that ragtime mockingbird.4

A perennial muse of songwriters, this little avian wonder appears later in hits such as “Mockin’ Bird Hill” (1951), “Mockingbird” (1963), “One for the Mockingbird” (1987), and even a 2005 single by the rapper Eminem. (By the way, a post on some rock-era compositions featuring bird-inspired lyrics is available here.)

More Music from the Days of Yore

Lots of old-timey tunes exist that make either literal or metaphorical references to birds. “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” (1900), for example, is a song about the miserable outcome of marrying for money rather than for love.5 The Parlor Songs Academy website offers an extensive look at the bird-related recordings of the Tin Pan Alley period. There, among the avian fare represented in American music history, one will find numbers about the cuckoo, crow, robin, whippoorwill, and a few others.

Several archaic ditties familiar to U.S. audiences have roots outside the country. One of these is “The Cutty Wren,” an old English folk song related to the Wren Hunt tradition in parts of Scotland and Ireland.6 Chumbawamba, the British band best known for its 1997 hit “Tubthumping,” recorded a version of it. Here in the States, an even older song from England is “The Cuckoo” (also “The Coo Coo”) (1769),7 a classic that has since been covered by the Everly Brothers, Bob Dylan, Donovan, and many others.

A quick search on YouTube and music websites will turn up versions of many such tunes—as well as recordings of actual bird calls and songs, such as that of the northern mockingbird here from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Fortunately, thanks to the Internet, there’s no need to buy mockingbirds (which, if you’re curious, is illegal), cuckoos, or any other bird. Just go online or, better yet, venture outside!

Sources:

  1. “Hush, Little Baby.” Folklore home page of California State University, Fresno: https://www.fresnostate.edu/folklore/ballads/SBoA164.html. (Note that variations of this tune exist, some for instance using “Mamma” and others “Pappa.”)
  2. Audubon, JJ. “John J. Audubon’s Birds of America: Plate 21: Mockingbird.” National Audubon Society: https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/mocking-bird.
  3. “Mockingbirds.” Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.: https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/mockingbirds.
  4. Kimball, R, Emmet, L (editors). The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. p. 48.
  5. Tyler, D. Hit Songs, 1900–1955: American Popular Music of the Pre-Rock Era. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2007. pp. 9–10.
  6. “The Cutty Wren.” Folklore home page of California State University, Fresno: http://www.fresnostate.edu/folklore/ballads/DTcutywr.html.
  7. “The Cuckoo.” Folklore home page of California State University, Fresno: http://www.fresnostate.edu/folklore/ballads/R049.html.

 

Happy Birthday, John James Audubon

Audubon

One of America’s first great success stories began 230 years ago today. Back then Audubon’s rise to fame was far from certain and definitely not easy. Viewing him as a controversial figure, the scientific community in his adopted homeland even initially rejected his work. Only due to his perseverance and talent was the man whose name today is synonymous with all things bird-related able to secure his rightful place in history.

Born on a Caribbean Plantation

On April 26, 1785, our hero’s unlikely story started in a French colony in an area known today as Haiti. An illegitimate child born to the owner of a sugar plantation, the boy initially resided in the Caribbean. Within a few years, though, his father brought him to France. There he began drawing. Audubon later in life attributed several childhood experiences with his passion for birds, one of which oddly enough involved a parrot-killing monkey. Reportedly, the young Audubon wailed for the dead pet bird, which was later “buried with all the pomp of a cherished lost one” (1).

Immigrating to the United States, where he soon married and became a citizen, Audubon continued his lifelong fascination of studying and illustrating birds. His travels took him through much of the continental United States, including parts of New England, the Ohio River Valley, and the Louisiana territory. He interacted with the Native Americans of the frontier, especially the Osage tribesmen (2). On one occasion while hunting a great horned owl, Audubon reported falling into “quicksand up to my armpits” but was pulled free by his companions (3, 4). Like other ornithologists of that day, he often had to kill his specimens. Instead of photography—cameras had not been invented yet—he had to rely on his shotguns (5, 6).

Continuing to perfect his artistic skills, Audubon developing a special grid-board with wires for mounting his avian specimens in life-like poses. The belted kingfisher was the first bird he painted via this new system, a method that he would eventually share with other ornithologists (7). His first successful depictions of birds in flight were of a whippoorwill and nighthawk (8). Throughout his lifetime, Audubon illustrated at least 440 species of birds, according to an estimate made in William Souder’s Under a Wild Sky (9). Among these creatures, the wild turkey ranked among his favorites, its image used for his own personal seal (10, 11). Known primarily today for his paintings of birds, Audubon also illustrated other animals (12). He even made a living during some of his travels by working on portraits (13).

A Few Missteps

Richard Rhodes’s John James Audubon: The Making of an American and Souder’s book, both published in 2004, are wonderful sources for an in-depth view of Audubon’s triumphs and struggles. Much of the information cited here is available in those two biographies. From these books, one can easily sense that Audubon was a man of remarkable expertise, talent, ingenuity, and fortitude. Yet, all these traits beg an important question: Why was he forced to seek endorsement and financial assistance in Britain to publish his magnum opus?

Part of the problem likely involved Audubon’s personality. He was known on occasion to stretch the truth. He frequently misrepresented his origins, but understandably so due to social stigma and legal issues (14, 15). Other statements he made, though, seem less reasonable, such as his dubious claims about receiving instruction from the French portrait painter Jacques-Louis David and hunting with Daniel Boone (16, 17). Some of his field studies and accounts drew ridicule for misinformation, in particular those regarding rattlesnake behavior (18) and his claim that turkey vultures cannot smell (19, 20). While such circumstances are notable blemishes, one must keep in mind that reputable ornithologists of that time period were not immune to mistakes.

Like all great men and women in history, Audubon had his share of flaws. For instance, he and his wife for a few years owned several slaves (21). As noted above, he may have been dishonest at times. Some people, too, may find fault in that he killed hundreds of birds to complete his drawings. Let’s not overlook the fact, though, that he also kept several as pets (22), and that he was concerned about the effects of industrialization on avian habitats (23). But most importantly, besides being the foremost expert on American birds in his day, Audubon was a pioneering artist.

Success First in Britain then America

Some influential people in U.S. ornithological circles refused initially to acknowledge the value of his work, most notably, George Ord, who held prominent positions in the Academy of Natural Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. Believing Audubon lacked the necessary integrity and aesthetic style for science illustrations, Ord and others within the establishment treated the outsider with disdain. Most likely, Ord, who had played a role in the late Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology, felt Audubon a personal threat (25). No such resistance occurred in Britain, where Audubon was able to secure the means to print volumes from 1827 through 1838 of his Birds of America, a masterpiece of unequaled quality and scope.

Unlike previous illustrations of ornithological specimens from the United States, Audubon painted his birds in life-sized proportions. He also chose to represent his subjects interacting with one another and their environment. And, as a special thank-you to his supporters, Audubon named several species of birds for international ornithologist-friends, such as Charles-Lucien Bonaparte (Napoleon’s nephew), William Swainson, and William MacGillivray (26).

Later, praises and admiration followed in his adopted homeland. The National Audubon Society, one of the oldest and most respected conservation groups in the world, was named in his honor. In fact, digital reproductions of Audubon’s work are featured on the group’s website. Also, several historic sites in the U.S. share his namesake, including John James Audubon State Park in Henderson, Kentucky.

Sources:

  1. Rhodes, R. John James Audubon: The Making of an American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. pp. 4–5, 21–22.
  2. Rhodes, R. pp. 82–83.
  3. Rhodes, R. p. 116.
  4. Souder, W. Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of the Birds of America. New York: North Point Press, 2004. p. 147.
  5. Rhodes, R. pp. 11, 73–74.
  6. Souder, W. pp. 97–99.
  7. Souder, W. P. 71.
  8. Rhodes, R. pp. 101–102.
  9. Souder, W. p. 286.
  10. Souder, W. p. 245.
  11. Rhodes, R. p. 273.
  12. Rhodes, R. pp. 240–241, 262–263, 335.
  13. Rhodes, R. pp. 145, 216.
  14. Rhodes, R. pp. 4–5, 315.
  15. Souder, W. pp. 11, 19–21.
  16. Rhodes, R. pp. 315, 346.
  17. Souder, W. pp. 11, 264–266.
  18. Souder, W. pp. 223–225.
  19. Souder, W. p. 219.
  20. Strycker, N. The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 2014. pp. 53–54, 62–63.
  21. Rhodes, R. p. 115.
  22. Rhodes, R. pp. 117–118.
  23. Rhodes, R. p. 280.
  24. Rhodes, R. pp. 221–223.
  25. Souder, W. pp. 286–287.