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.

 

Symbolism behind Coats of Arms

heraldry_bestiary

Ostriches are fond of eating shiny metal objects. Or so the thinking used to go. Insignias on coats of arms reinforced this difficult-to-digest idea, as did medieval bestiaries. Even William Shakespeare refers to the notion in a dramatic duel scene:

 … I’ll make thee eat iron like an ostrich and
swallow my sword like a great pin…

This curious threat comes from one of the bard’s staged histories, The Second Part of King Henry VI (Act 4, Scene 10, Lines 28-29).

Though not native to England, these big birds were brought there long before Shakespeare’s time. In fact, several royal precursors to Henry VI owned ostriches, including Normandy’s William the Conqueror and King John. The latter kept them among his stable of exotic creatures. Interestingly, archaeological digs of London’s old Lion Tower have uncovered nails near the neck bones of these birds’ remains, suggesting that people once fed ostriches sharp metal pieces (1). Wow, talk about heartburn!

Notions of iron-eating ostriches captivated the European imagination, as evident from iconography depicting ostriches with nails, keys, and horseshoes in their beaks. Typically representing an individual of great authority or religious zeal (2), the images made up part of a vast collection of symbols used in heraldry.

Emblems for Nations, Statesmen, and Rock Stars

Heraldry is an elaborate system of symbols used to represent the identities of individuals, families, cities, and nations. Though primarily associated today with European nobility, the practice spans the world and goes back thousands of years. Several ancient nations of the Middle East adopted representational images of the eagle (3), a bird that has remained popular as a heraldic symbol. Similar displays of national coats of arms are designed in the spirit of this tradition. Many feature feathered animals: Chile’s includes the condor; Uganda’s, the crested crane; and Nauru’s, the frigatebird (4)

Individuals have frequently relied on avian symbols for expressing personal characteristics, such as rank, origin, and occupation. Adorning Sir Paul McCartney’s coat of arms are a guitar and a “liver bird,” the latter a heraldic emblem of the former Beatle’s hometown, Liverpool (5). By the way, the “liver bird” is based on the cormorant, just as the mythical martlet, a small bird depicted without feet, is modeled on the swallow or house martin (6). Commonly used by the younger sons of a large family, the martlet appears in several places on Ben Franklin’s arms (7). Franklin, after all, was one of seventeen children!

The Fun Side of Heraldry

Sometimes considered esoteric and stale, heraldry I’ve discovered can be rather fascinating—even amusing. For example, take the coat of arms of Benjamin Franklin’s contemporary, American statesman John Hancock. This man obviously had a sense of humor. Making light of his name, he chose an open hand and three roosters or cocks as his symbols (8).

William Shakespeare’s coat of arms suggests that he, too, had fun using images to play on his surname. The “spear” element is obvious: prominently displayed are a couple of large, pen-like items of the weapon (9). The “shake” part of the design, however, relies on an unfamiliar reference. Gripping one of the spears is a falcon readying for flight. This action didn’t initially mean anything to me, but I soon learned that the motion is referred to in falconry as “the shaking” (10). As a result, I came away once again impressed with the wit of England’s greatest punster and wordsmith.

Though not as popular as during Shakespeare’s time, the ancient art form of heraldry is still alive and well today. Aficionados are continuing to find creative ways to enjoy their pastime. A few websites devote space to looking at the heraldry employed in Game of Thrones, studying Disney’s fictional McDuck family’s coat of arms, and generating heraldic representations of National Football League team logos. What I enjoy most, of course, is that birds can be seen on all of them!

Sources:

  1. Heck, C, Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. pp. 550–552.
  2. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 56.
  3. Ingersoll, E. p. 28.
  4. J. The Complete Guide to National Symbols and Emblems. Volume 1. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2010. pp. 120, 229, 928.
  5. Wilson, AN. “As the Bercows unveil their boastful coat of arms, the vulgar truth about family crests”, 11/30/2011. Daily Mail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2068401/Speaker-John-Bercow-coat-arms-The-vulgar-truth-family-crests.html.
  6. Vinycomb, J. Fictitious & Symbolic Creatures in Art with Special Reference to their Use in British Heraldry. London: Chapman and Hall, Limited, 1906. pp. 186, 187, 189.
  7. “Famous Coats of Arms”. International Heraldry: http://www.internationalheraldry.com/famous.htm.
  8. “Famous Coats of Arms”. International Heraldry.
  9. Dingfelder, S. “A draft of Shakespeare’s coat of arms is on display for Folger Shakespeare Library’s ‘Symbols of Honor’”, 7/10/2014. The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/express/wp/2014/07/10/a-draft-of-shakespeares-coat-of-arms-is-on-display-at-folger-shakespeare-librarys-symbols-of-honor/.
  10. Duncan-Jones, K. Shakespeare: Upstart Crow to Sweet Swan: 1592-1623. London: A & C Black, 2011. p. 107.

Cultural “Foot” Notes

crowsfeet

Folks often focus on the plumage of our feathered friends, overlooking their feet. However, besides serving an array of specialized functions, these structures have significantly impacted the history of human language, folklore, and, yes, even cuisine.

“Crow’s Feet”                                                              

It’s no secret. As we age, wrinkles form on the face, and the claw-like marks that appear under or along the outer corner of the eyes are likened to the feet of crows. This expression, still quite common today, dates back at least to fourteenth-century England, when Geoffrey Chaucer used it—with negative connotation regarding the feminine aging process—in his Troilus and Creseyde (1). Speculation exists as to the choice of the crow. Some believe this is due to the bird’s relationship with witchcraft and death (2, 3). Maybe, though, the crow’s association with wisdom and intelligence as well as the bird’s well-known habit for the extended rearing of its offspring were also factors. After all, Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls cites the raven for its wisdom and the crow for its caring calls (4). Perhaps the enduring popularity of the “crow’s feet” term lies in part to its power as a metaphoric badge of wisdom and compassionate maturity.

A Crane’s Foot in the Family Tree

Another widely used word in our language derives as well from yet another bird’s foot, in this instance, that of the crane. The origin of the word “pedigree” has a long history, going back beyond Chaucer, to a period of time not that long after William the Conqueror and the Normans invaded England in 1066. Back then, families began illustrating their genealogical connections to the monarchy. The angled foot-like sections within these charts were thought to look a lot like a “crane’s foot” and, thus, were called such, but in French, pied du grue. This phrase developed into the word “pedigree” (5, 6). Today, of course, we refer to genealogical charts as “family trees” instead of “crane’s feet”.

The Foot Capable of One Fatal Blow

More than just a source of poetic inspiration and colloquialisms, a bird’s foot can deliver something much more lethal. This is definitely the case with the cassowary. Indigenous to parts of Australia and Indonesia, this large creature has acquired a frightening reputation. The notoriety is well warranted. It’s due to the bird’s sharp claws, especially the inner one, which is capable of gashing any animal (including humans) to death. Generally not aggressive, this is definitely one creature not to be provoked. Nevertheless, on the island of New Guinea, tribal people do hunt the cassowary, traditionally using its feathers and bones for items such as headdresses, jewelry, and tools. These folks also take the bird’s claws. They serve a rather fitting function—as daggers (7).

No Feet? Three Feet?

When first brought back to Europe from New Guinea during the sixteenth century, birds of paradise specimens fascinated the public. These creatures’ long, ornate tail feather were unlike anything Europeans had seen before. Adding to the bird’s mystique, natives of the South Pacific country typically clipped the legs and feet from the skins. Thus, Europeans initially thought these birds didn’t have any (8). This notion, though, was not unprecedented. Many people in the West at this time thought that swallows and house martins lacked feet as well. These small birds, in fact, were represented as the footless martlet (merlette or merlot) on seals, coats-of-arms, and other heraldic ornamentation (9, 10). The martlet is symbolic of swiftness as in traveling, or in fighting on the battlefield (11). On the other side of the world, in China and Japan, artistic renderings of another avian creature sometimes appeared with an extra leg—the three-legged crow. There is some debate, though, about the exact meaning of this as a symbol (12, 13, 14). As to the birds of paradise, no one now disputes that they have two feet!

Chicken Toes

Chicken “fingers” are a popular treat, especially with children. Though not really appendages, one thing’s definitely clear—they’re not toes! Fried chicken feet, however, are consumed in many places throughout the world, including parts of Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean (15, 16, 17). In fact, they’re considered a delicacy in China, where the U.S. and Britain export them. Although I have never tasted them, I have occasionally seen packaged chicken feet in mainstream grocery stores in the South. I have even heard of folks, particularly in the Appalachian region, eating them (18). The dish is far from popular, even in that region, though. And I have my doubts that such culinary fare will ever become mainstream in the United States, no matter how well received it remains in other parts of the world.

Sources:

  1. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 170.
  2. Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. 2004. p. 121.
  3. Walker, B. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols & Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1988. p. 398.
  4. Chaucer, G. “The Parliament of Fowls.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature (The Online Archive): http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/noa/pdf/08Fowls_1_17.pdf.
  5. Ingersoll, E. p. 170.
  6. Johnsgard, P.A. Cranes of the World. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1983; electronic edition: Lincoln, Nebraska, 2008. p. 70.
  7. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. pp. 21-23.
  8. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 398.
  9. Ingersoll, E. p. 64.
  10. Vinycomb, J. Fictitious & Symbolic Creatures in Art with Special Reference to their Use in British Heraldry. London: Chapman and Hall, Limited, 1906. pp. 186-187.
  11. Vinycomb, J. pp. 186-187.
  12. Werness, H.B. p. 121.
  13. Chevalier, J., Gheerbrant, A. A Dictionary of Symbols. Buchanan-Brown, J. (translator). London: Penguin Books, 1969 (1996). p. 789.
  14. Stern, H. P. Birds, Beasts, Blossoms, and Bugs: The Nature of Japan. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1976. p. 86.
  15. Kasper, L.R. “Footnotes: Eating hooves and claws from China to South Africa”. The Splendid Table: http://www.splendidtable.org/story/footnotes-eating-hooves-and-claws-from-china-to-south-africa.
  16. Flock, E. “Chicken feet in China, and other animal-part delicacies we eat around the world,” 12/16/2011. The Washington Post (Blog): http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/post/chicken-feet-in-china-and-other-animal-part-delicacies-we-eat-around-the-world/2011/12/16/gIQAjdYKyO_blog.html.
  17. Gray, R. “Let them eat chicken feet: drive to sell offal and animal feet abroad as delicacies,” 9/15/2013. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinknews/10309562/Let-them-eat-chicken-feet-drive-to-sell-offal-and-animal-feet-abroad-as-delicacies.html.
  18. Farr, S.S. My Appalachia: A Memoir. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2014. p. 78.