Photo from the LoC

Esquire points to a really interesting read on The New Yorker about an instance in history when Ben Franklin wrote about how the national bird should be a turkey instead of an eagle.

Yet the turkey has, like its country, known more glorious moments. Benjamin Franklin disliked the choice of the bald eagle as the national bird, and it was in a letter to his daughter, in 1784, that he proposed putting the turkey in its place. The eagle, Franklin points out, is “a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly. . . . 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.” Truly, a one-per-cent kind of bird. The turkey, however, represented to Franklin the best of bourgeois Philadelphia values. The turkey is not only a native; “He is besides, though 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.”

That was not a finger-on-the-nose bit of Old Ben playfulness. Earlier in the turkey letter, Franklin is arguing hard about whether there ought to be hereditary legacies in American life, and he makes the keen point that there are two kinds of honor in the world: the Old World’s “descending honor,” in which people pass on their goods and their status to their children, and the New World’s “ascending honor,” in which children strive to impress their parents by moving up in society on their own. For Franklin, ascending honor—what we would now call meritocratic advancement—is the American goal, and descending honor the American danger. The eagle is to him an avian example of descending honor in action: looking classy but swooping down to feed on the helpless. The turkey is the bird of ascending honor: silly and vain, pluming itself too much on the small stuff but sharing the feed with the other birds in the yard and ready to give hell to anyone who tries to make trouble.

By his description, the turkey seems a more noble bird than the bald eagle and more fitting for the true aspirations of most Americans. But man, imagine how silly that would be if our national bird was the turkey. While the turkey may not be as vicious and careless, there’s still something to be said about how the bald eagle portrays itself as the king of the skies. And well, at least that’s how we Americans perceive ourselves right?