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American Myths: Benjamin Franklin’s Turkey and the Presidential Seal

How the New Yorker and the West Wing botched the history of the icon

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New Yorker 1962 cover

Artist Anatole Kovarsky’s image from the cover from the November 24, 1962 issue of The New Yorker (image: Anatole Kovarsky via New Yorker cover archive)

While researching our recent article about the Seal of the President of the United States, I came across a few couple myths about the National Emblem that required a little more investigation.

First up, the idea that Benjamin Franklin, in his infinite wisdom and wit, wanted the National Bird to be the turkey. According to the United States Diplomacy Center, this myth is completely false (though I’ll dive into the murkier parts of that myth in a moment). The center points to the fact that Franklin’s proposal for the Great Seal was devoid of birds completely and suggest that the idea was propagated, in part, by a 1962 illustration for the cover of the New Yorker by artist Anatole Kovarsky, who imagined what the Great Seal of the United States might look like if the turkey did become our national emblem (above image). However, while it’s hard to imagine that overstuffed, flightless bird on our currency and on the President’s lectern instead of on our dinner table, there is actually a bit of truth to this rumor.

The Franklin Institute, addressing what I’m sure is their favorite question about one of the most complex and interesting men to ever live in this country, excerpts a letter from Franklin to his daughter, in which he does in fact question the choice of the eagle, commenting that the selected design looks more like a turkey. Franklin then expounds on the respectability and morality of each bird, which really seems like such a Ben Franklin thing to do:

“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen 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 perched 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 & 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…

“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & 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.”

The second myth I wanted to address is tied to the alterations President Truman made to the Presidential Seal. It’s sometimes said that the eagle on the Presidential Seal changes during times of war to face the arrows instead of the olive branch. This one is unquestionably false, although somewhat understandable. From 1916 to 1945 the eagle did indeed face the arrows –a version that can still be seen on the Resolute Desk– but this was changed when President Truman issued Executive Order 9646, modifying the seal so that the eagle faced the olive branch – a gesture symbolic of the post-war nation’s dedication to peace. While the changes to the seal, which always occurred around times of war, may explain the origin of the myth, its propoagation is owed largely to popular culture. According to snopes.com, in both an episode of “The West Wing” and the Dan Brown novel Deception Point, the myth is incorrectly stated as fact. But perhaps the final word should come from Winston Churchill, a Franklinesque wit himself. When Truman showed him the changes that were made to seal, Churchill suggested that the eagle’s head should just be on a swivel.

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