How the Eagle Became the U.S. Mascot

A true Native American, the bald eagle can be found from Alaska to the northern border of Mexico, and from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic. It is the only eagle found exclusively in North America, so it is very fitting that it is our national emblem. Not only was it decided early on but, contrary to myths and folklore, it was a quick and widely supported decision.

Roman Republic SealSince Roman times, the eagle has been associated with strength, and the Legions used it as their standard. Rightfully so, as the American bald eagle weighs between 7 and 14 lbs., males being smaller than females, and their wing spans measure 6 to 8 feet. This incredible size and power allows them to fly up to 10,000 feet in the air and dive at speeds up to 100 miles per hour.

The eagle is a sea bird and feeds on turtles, snakes, fish, and ducks. They are also known to add rabbits, muskrats, and dead animals (think roadkill). They are an incredible bird of prey with acute eyesight and sharp talons, giving them the ability to attack from the air.

So, with the knowledge of all these qualities, it is no surprise that our founding fathers chose this bird to be our national emblem. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, Congress asked John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin to come up with an official seal. With the brain power of these three, you would think it would be an The Great Seal of the USeasy task. They failed to design something that would satisfy Congress. They turned to Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress.

Finally, on June 20, 1782, the Great Seal was adopted. Thomson chose the best elements from various designs and changed the small white eagle (originally in a design by William Barton, a lawyer from Pennsylvania) to the American bald eagle. Thus, our national emblem became the American bald eagle.

There are stories told about Benjamin Franklin’s opposition to this choice. The myth is that Franklin wrote:

I wish that 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, you may have seen him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk, and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to its nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him…. Besides he is a rank coward; the little kingbird, 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. . . of America.. . . For a truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America . . . a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards, who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on.

The American bald eagle with American flag backgroundWhile it is a humorous tale, the truth is that he penned a letter to his daughter, once, stating that the bald eagle was “a bird of bad moral character.” While Franklin had his opinions, the American bald eagle was a strong symbol of American pride, which made it necessary to pass the Bald Eagle Protection Act in 1940.

Congress passed the act because the population was being diminished by the use of DDT. The chemical was widely used as a pesticide after World War I all across the U.S. The eagles were consuming animals who carried the pesticide and became a silent killer of the eagles. Thankfully, once this act was in place and the use of DDT was prohibited, the population has grown over the years.

This majestic bird is now associated with the United States by countries and people all around the world. The American bald eagle strikes a chord of pride and patriotism in Americans just as the American flag does,  and it will continue to do so for many more centuries to come.

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