The bald eagle has been the prominent symbol of the United States since the 18th Century, but few citizens know how the regal bird happened to gain its place as an American icon.
The bald eagle, which earns its name from an early definition of “white-headed,” was soaring over the American continent long before Europeans arrived, and was revered by many Native American cultures.
When the United States first began to assert itself an independent nation, many of the Founding Fathers compared their new country with the Roman Republic, which frequently used the eagle as a sign of power in its legions.
After signing the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams were assigned the task of designing a new national seal, but their ideas, and those of two later committees, were repeatedly rejected by Congress until after the war. In 1782, the job was given to Charles Thomson, the secretary of Congress.
Thomson borrowed from the previous designs, including one that featured an eagle drawn by Pennsylvania lawyer William Barton. Barton’s eagle was a small white eagle, but Thomson replaced it with an American bald eagle on his own submission, and the design was officially adopted on June 1782.
It’s unclear how the bald eagle in particular earned a place in the American conscience to begin with, but a legend goes that at one of the first battles of the Revolution, the noise awoke sleeping eagles, who took to the skies above the struggle and began crying out. “They are shrieking for freedom,” the patriots supposedly said.
There’s a prevailing myth that Benjamin Franklin pushed for the wild turkey as a national symbol, but there’s no evidence to support this. However, Franklin did write in a letter to his daughter that he wished the bald eagle was not chosen, calling it a bird of “bad moral character” and a “rank coward” who stole its prey from other birds.
Franklin wasn’t the only critic, but arguments died down when the eagle was officially designated as the national symbol in 1789. Since then, the eagle has become the unquestionable symbol of America, exemplifying the United State’s aspirations for virtue and freedom. Its name and likeness has appeared on everything from American currency to the first lunar lander.
Despite the eagle’s exulted status, its populations dwindled in the late 20th century, due largely to unregulated hunting and the pesticide DDT. Unwilling to let their national symbol die off, the government threw its weight behind a massive campaign to save it, and by 2007 the eagle’s numbers had rebounded enough for it to be removed from the endangered species list.
More than two hundred years after its introduction, the bald eagle seems to be an even better symbol of America than the Founding Fathers could’ve anticipated. Like the eagle, the United States embodies an independent spirit and lofty ambitions, but it’s also weathered criticism and struggled repeatedly to survive. However, the future of both America and its official bird still looks promising. If Ben Franklin was alive today, even he might agree the bald eagle was the right choice.