In 1784 Ben Franklin was close to eighty, and he had already achieved considerable renown as a publisher, essayist, educator, inventor, scientist, statesman and bon vivant. This Renaissance man was not about to rest on his laurels, however. He was, in fact, in Paris, where he had been since just before Christmas of 1776. Franklin, with his fur hat and his spectacles, had soon become the toast of French society, which regarded him as the embodiment of American virtues, simple but wise, a charming combination of the noble and the common man. French adulation had its comical side - Franklin's portrait appeared on everything from ladies' fans to chamber pots. Still, French affection for Franklin, along with Ben's diplomatic skills, resulted in considerable French aid for the Colonies as they fought against the British. Although a formal peace treaty was signed in 1783, and Franklin was eager to go home, he was asked to stay on in Paris for two more years to arrange trade treaties between France and the fledgling United States. In 1785, amid great acclaim, Franklin finally returned to Philadelphia, and his powers of diplomacy would help the wrangling delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 pull together and adopt the Constitution by unanimous consent.
However, on January 26, 1784, Franklin penned a letter home that shows the master diplomat could be blunt and outspoken when he chose. Ben was probably in a bit of a huff when he wrote this letter, because he'd received word from America that he'd been overruled. Just after the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had been chosen by the Second Continental Congress to "be a committee, to bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America." This distinguished committee did not slight its responsibilities. It met, cogitated, and several weeks later handed in its recommendation.
The Franklin committee had come up with a seal with an elaborate coat of arms on one side and a depiction of the Israelites escaping from Egypt and the pursuing Pharaoh on the other. The accompanying motto was "Rebellion to Tyrants Is Obedience to God." The Congress never got around to voting on this interesting device, since it had the Revolutionary War to worry about, and a few months later Franklin sailed for France and diplomatic duty there.
The idea of designing a seal for the new nation wasn't completely forgotten during the war years. A second committee was formed in 1780, but nothing productive came of it. A third one met in May of 1782. Still, after six years and dozens of ideas, no proposal had met with general acceptance, and the seal design remained in limbo.
The logjam was finally broken later in 1782, when Charles Thompson, Secretary of Congress, was asked to resolve the problem. Thompson was a man of rare decisiveness, and he put together the design that was to become our national seal in one week. Thompson's sketch wasn't completely original - his genius lay in putting together elements that had already been proposed in a new and balanced way. For the centerpiece of the seal, Thompson used an idea contributed some time before by William Barton, a Philadelphia man who combined a knowledge of heraldry with an ability to draw. He had submitted to Congress a drawing of a small, heraldic-looking eagle. Thompson liked the eagle, and he made it the focus of his design, but he specified that the bird be "An American Eagle," a bald eagle in other words. He went on to draw the "American Eagle" clutching an olive branch, the symbol of peace, in one foot. The other foot contained a bundle of arrows, a symbol of war. The elements came from the second committee's work, along with the thirteen stars and thirteen stripes that appear on the shield in front of the eagle. He also retained some elements from the Franklin committee's design: the shield, a scroll, the eye of Providence and the Latin motto "E Pluribus Unum" (One out of many).
Thompson was a brilliant synthesizer, a whiz at combining disparate elements and forming them into a coherent, appealing whole. He was also a patriot - it was his idea that the centerpiece of the national seal be a bird found only in North America. He was no artist, however, and his sketch of the new design looked like a windblown chicken that had met an evil end, possibly by stabbing itself with its own arrows. So William Barton was called in again. He turned Thompson's rather clumsy sketch into a finished drawing, adding some refinements of his own as he did so. The result featured a majestic bird with wings and legs extended, "displayed" in heraldic parlance. Thanks to Barton's work, our national seal has a traditional heraldic look. And thanks to Thompson, there is a distinctly American quality to it, for no Old World national seal features the bald eagle. Our national symbol is both traditional and original, a happy combination rarely achieved.
Congress was enthusiastic about the Thompson / Barton design, and on June 20, 1782, they adopted it as the United States' official seal. The drawing was immediately cut in brass, so it could be used both as a seal and as a national coat of arms. Later in the same year, the seal was used for the first time on a Congressional document giving General George Washington the necessary power to negotiate with the British over the care of prisoners.
And what of our old friend, Ben Franklin? While all this was going on, Franklin remained in Paris, enlisting French aid for the beleaguered Colonial troops. But he was kept informed of events back home, and eventually he heard about the new official seal. Since his choice of design had been rejected, he may well have been somewhat resentful. It's certain he was unimpressed with the use of the bald eagle in the design. Franklin felt that if the United States were to have a national bird, it should be the wild turkey. He wrote: "For my 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...like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy. Besides, he is a rank coward...."
right? In part. The bald eagle is a thief, and he can be a
coward. He will also eat carrion if it's handy, and he'll bully smaller
birds. But all these negative words - "thief," "coward,"
"bully" - are human value judgements. What they really mean,
in the case of the bald eagle, is that the bird is a opportunist,
a bird perfectly capable (and splendidly designed) of taking prey
ranging from fish to waterfowl to small mammals, but one that is not
fussy about the source of a meal. If his food has already been killed
for him, so much the better - this saves him some energy. If he spots
a smaller bird like an osprey with a fish catch, he will unhesitatingly
force the indignant fish hawk to drop it. Snatching up his ill-gotten
gains in midair, the bald eagle then proceeds to a nearby perch, where
he will eat the stolen meal entirely untroubled by conscience. The
bald eagle is, quite simply, concerned with surviving. He is totally
unconcerned with how he appears to us.
The bald eagle has another advantage as a national symbol besides being found only in America. Adult birds are strikingly marked, and can't be mistaken for anything else. While adult golden eagles are an overall dark brown, with golden feathers on the head and neck giving them their name (juveniles wear a white tail with a terminal black band), adult bald eagles sport a white head and tail that offer an arresting contrast to the dark-brown body. The eagle looks, in fact, like it was designed to be a heraldic animal, and Thompson clearly saw the bird's potential.
Others saw a commercial gold mine in the bald eagle. Virtually as soon as the bird was adopted as our national symbol, depictions of it began cropping up, not always in dignified places. To date it has appeared on everything from cans of coffee to Broadway advertising to moon mission patches. There was a time, however, when it seemed that the bald eagle was popular any way but in the flesh. In this country's early years, the continental United States may have supported as many as 100,000 nesting balds. By 1963, that had been reduced to 417 nesting pairs. Pesticide poisoning, particularly from DDT, was the main culprit, although habitat loss and illegal shooting also played a role. The use of DDT was banned in this country in 1972, and the bald eagle population began to bounce back. By the time the species was removed from the federal endangered species list in 1999, the contiguous United States (excluding Alaska) contained approximately 5,800 nesting pairs.
Hard as it is to believe, the bald eagle was actually bountied in Alaska until recently. In 1940, Congress, under pressure from environmental groups that realized the bald was declining rapidly in numbers, passed the National Emblem Law. This prohibited the molesting or killing of bald eagles in what was then the 48 United States. This protection did not apply to birds living in Alaska, and the fur and fishing industries there saw to it that what they regarded as competition would not be left alone. The bald eagle was first bountied in Alaska in 1917, and from that year to the 1960s, more than 100,000 eagles were killed. Fortunately, Alaska adopted the National Emblem Law in 1962, and the bounty on the birds was repealed the next year. Now Alaska has more bald eagles than all the other states combined.
eagles have benefited from our somewhat belated protection of our
national symbol. After the killing of bald eagles was prohibited nationwide
in 1940, many immature balds continued to die. Bald eagles develop
their trademark white head and tail over a five- or six-year period,
and young balds are an overall, rather unkempt-looking dark brown
with irregular patches of white. Both eagles are the same size, about
thirteen pounds for a female and ten for a male, with wingspans up
to seven and a half feet. Young bald eagles look enough like golden
eagles to be shot as one, and many were killed because of this. In
1962 golden eagles were added to the federal list of protected species,
and now the killing of either eagle can bring the culprit a jail sentence
and a stiff fine.
So the bald eagle has overcome problems that might have done in a less resilient species, including Ben Franklin's criticism of its morals. Majestic, heraldic, adaptable, tough and above all a survivor, the bald is a fitting national symbol. And if Franklin disagreed with that - well, differing opinions are possible, even welcome, in a democracy.