A Very Respectable Bird

Posted in: Research, A Summary View, Thomas Jefferson

With the coming of Thanksgiving comes also a burble of chatty news stories about the origins thereof, and usually something about turkeys.  Not far behind comes some sort of mention of the Founding Fathers, and how they all felt about turkeys.  I've seen several of these articles in the last few days and I don't know what else to think but that somebody out there has been working overtime, making up stories about Founding Fathers and turkeys. The primary misconception that I'm seeing on the Internet-waves seems to be the perceived opposition between Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin during the designing process of the Seal of the United States, and their relative preference for turkeys or eagles.  Apparently TJ wanted an eagle on the seal, and Franklin wanted a turkey - TJ obviously having prevailed.  And some articles have added the intriguing tidbit that Franklin, in a fit of pique after his beloved turkey was not chosen for the seal, began calling turkeys "Tom." Where do people come up with this stuff?  That doesn't even make sense - if Franklin thought so highly of the turkey, it wouldn't be an insult to name it after somebody he was supposedly mad at. Anyway, in case the precarious logic of this story didn't tip you off as to its unreliability, I can also confidently tell you that it bears no relationship to anything that one might call "facts."  Consider the following:

  1. The appellation "Tom" for various male animals, chiefly poultry and cats, was around long before Jefferson and Franklin didn't have a disagreement about birds for the Great Seal.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary: "In 1760 was published an anonymous work ‘The Life and Adventures of a Cat’, which became very popular. The hero, a male or ‘ram’ cat, bore the name of Tom, and is commonly mentioned as ‘Tom the Cat’, as ‘Tybert the Catte’ is in Caxton's Reynard the Fox. Thus Tom became a favourite allusive name for a male cat."  (Ditto turkeys.)
  2. Jefferson had nothing to do with the selection of the eagle for the seal (see link to article on Seal above).  There was no eagle in any of the proposals submitted by Jefferson and his fellow committee members in 1776, and after that Jefferson was no longer involved in seal-designing for the new nation.  (Know what Jefferson did want on the seal?  Hengist and Horsa, his favorite Anglo-Saxon heroes.  What a dork.)
  3. Franklin did not propose (formally) that there be a turkey on the seal.
  4. Therefore, Jefferson and Franklin didn't have a disagreement about whether there should be a turkey or an eagle on the Great Seal.
  5. After the seal's design was finalized in the early 1780s (by a completely different committee), Franklin did grump a bit at the choice of the eagle over, say, the turkey:

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.  (BF to Sarah Bache, January 26, 1784)

And besides all that, turkeys probably taste way better than bald eagles.  So, off you all go then, and and enjoy chowing down on a Very Respectable Bird this Thanksgiving.

Comments

says

Arrgh, 1776! That infernal production is responsible for more historical misconceptions, I swear...come to think of it, maybe it IS the source of this particular myth. I shall have to investigate...

says

But, but, but we SAW Jefferson and Franklin (and John Adams) sing about turkeys and eagles and doves in the musical 1776. True, that was several years before the documented discussion of the U.S. seal. And Jefferson wasn't championing the eagle. And it was historical fiction in the form of a musical. But we SAW it.

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