The Bald Eagle and the Great Seal

Things I had to unlearn

I am frustrated by how many things I have had to unlearn over the years. There is so much information that I thought was true, but was not. 

For example, I mislearned in elementary school that honest George Washington confessed to chopping down the family cherry tree. I mislearned in college that George Washington had false teeth made from wood. I also mislearned, from somewhere, that the national bald eagle on currency faces its arrows in times of war, and it faces its olive branches in times of peace. And, I mislearned all sorts of entertaining, enlightening, and inspiring stories from the internet that are false.  

Recently, I had to unlearn that Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams argued over the nation bird symbol. I cringe when I think how many times I have shared that false story. (If you are one of my “victims,” please forgive me.)

The national bird debate myth

I picked up this story, in part, from the popular musical “1776.” There is a song wherein the three founders disagree about the national symbol. Jefferson wanted the symbol to be a dove, because it was a symbol of peace. Franklin wanted the turkey, because it was a truly American symbol. Adams wanted the bald eagle, because it was a symbol of strength and might.  This story is not true.  Unfortunately, perception often overshadows reality.

Six-Year Debate over the Great Seal and national symbol

In reality, the debate over the National Bird Symbol and the Great Seal lasted over six years.

 In 1775, Ben Franklin suggested that the national symbol be a rattlesnake. “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress chose three preeminent Founding Fathers to come up with a Great Seal design.  The three were Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin wanted the Great Seal to feature Moses and PharaohJefferson wanted a scene depicting the children of Israel and two Anglo-Saxon mythical figures.  Adams wanted another mythical figure, Hercules.

Rejected proposal of the first committee

These three patriots brought in a designer. He rejected all three ideas and designed a seal with a shield held by the Goddesses of Liberty and Justice.

This first committee presented their design to the Continental Congress.  It was rejected. Congress turned down the idea. However, they kept their proposed slogan, “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of Many, One).

Rejected proposal of the second committee

 In 1780, the Continental Congress appointed a second committee of lesser known Founders. They brought in Francis Hopkinson, who in 1777 designed the American flag.  The second proposal had a warrior and Lady Liberty holding a shield that included elements from the flag. It too was rejected.

Rejected proposal of the third committee

Congress appointed a third committee.  In 1782, they proposed a complex design for the Great Seal that included an imperial eagle and dove. The design included a pyramid with an all-seeing eye on the back. The design was also rejected.  

Accepted proposal of the Secretary of Congress

 Since committees could not seem to get the job done to the satisfaction of the Continental Congress, the frustrated Continental Congress appointed their own Secretary, Charles Thompson, to come up with a design for the Great Seal. In May 1782, he presented Congress with a drawing of the Great Seal with the American bald eagle as the national symbol. 

The design included a bald eagle on the front of the Great Seal and a pyramid and all-seeing eye on the back.  His written proposal was accepted. Congress formally adopted this design on June 20, in 1782 for the Great Seal. 

The central symbol is a bald eagle holding thirteen arrows in one claw and thirteen olive branches in the other claw.  Obviously, the number thirteen represents the original thirteen colonies. The arrows represent strength and war, and the olive branch represents peace. Above the eagle is the national motto “E Pluribus Unum,” “Out of Many, One.”

On the back side of the Great Seal are the mottos: “Novus ordo seclorum” and “Annuit cœptis.” They mean:   “favors our undertakings” and “new order of the ages.” These can be traced back to the Roman poet Vigil.

Since that time, the bald eagle has appeared on official documents, currency, flags, public buildings and other government-related items. The bald eagle became an American icon.

Just like today’s Congress, the Continental Congress found it difficult to agree on anything. It was a miracle that they agreed on the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.

Bald eagle as the national symbol

However, there was a consensus that the national symbol would be the American bald eagle. Since ancient times, the eagle has been considered a sign of strength. Roman legions used the eagle as their standard. The eagle was an important symbol for the Roman republic, and it would be an important symbol for the American republic.

Acceptance of the eagle as the national symbol was not universal. The most prominent dissenter was Benjamin Franklin. In 1784, he wrote a letter from Paris to his daughter in Philadelphia expressing his personal dislike of eagles.

He complained, “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 is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district.”

The “national turkey”

Contrary to urban legend, Franklin never did promote the turkey publicly as the national bird – thank goodness.  But he did consider the turkey a more respectable symbol of our nation. He argued that the turkey was not only a native American bird, but it was, in fact, braver than the bald eagle, which runs away from fights.

“For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird. 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 famous bird expert John Audubon agreed with Franklin’s observations.)

The American bald eagle is a solid symbol. Since ancient times it has represented strength. It symbolizes proud patriotic Americans. 

It is fun to imagine and speculate having Franklin’s rattlesnake or turkey as our national symbol.

 (Sources: “Bald Eagle, National Bird of the United States,” “Novus ordo seclorum,” “Annuit cœptis,”  Wikipedia; “What Made the Bald Eagle the National Bird of the Unites States,”; “The turkey was almost our national bird,” Houston Chronicle; “The Founding Fathers really didn’t want the turkey as our national symbol,” Scott Bomboy,” Nov. 26, 2015, National Constitution Center,

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