Welcome to Random Explanations, in which I try to explain a matter, answer a question, or concoct a theory based on a reader's suggestion. In honor of Thanksgiving, we are going to dive into an age old question: Why did Benjamin Franklin want the turkey to be the national bird?
Ben Franklin. Man, we could do an entire Random Explanation based on "What was the deal with Ben Franklin?" But let's keep it focused. I have always heard that Franklin wanted the turkey to be the national bird instead of the bald eagle. As with many legends surrounding the founders of this country, it is largely not true. Franklin did not want the national bird of the young United States of America to be a turkey.
Ah, but there is just enough information out there that has given the legend legs. Franklin once wrote a letter to his daughter in which he remarked on how the selected design for the national seal looked more like a turkey than a bald eagle. He then broke down why the turkey might actually be a better representative of the country because it had far greater character than the lazy, thieving bald eagle. You can check out the link above. He goes into great detail about this issue, which is delightful because you can totally imagine Ben Franklin blogging about this were he alive today.
Even though the myth of "Turkey, National Bird" is not actually true, I cannot help but wonder what our world would look like if the gobbler replaced bald eagle as the symbol for our nation. If we were to go back in time Back to the Future-style and make the switch, it would create an alternate timeline that is absolutely fascinating and often hilarious. So what ramifications would there be if the turkey were the national bird?
There is no way we would be eating our national bird on Thanksgiving. It's debatable if we would eat our national bird at all. So what becomes the go-to main course for Not Turkey Day? Keep in mind that this not only changes what we eat but it changes the decorations for the holiday as well. Like if it were ham, then there are pigs with pilgrim hats everywhere. Animated pigs would be dancing with the annoying Fox Robot during Thanksgiving football games. Preschool kids would not be making be making handprint turkeys this week. Instead, they'd be putting...I don't know. They'd be tracing their fists and making pigs? My oldest son's first song that he learned in preschool, "A Turkey is a Funny Bird," completely disappears. The reverberations are endless.
But here's the thing: ham is the official main course of Christmas (I have always suspected it's because Christians reason the birth of Jesus set off a chain of events that allowed us to worship Yahweh, but eat pork). So what does it become? Chicken? Seafood? Tofu? Does a change in the main course transform the complementary side dishes? It's a rabbit hole (it could be rabbit!) of culinary curiosity.
Think of every single patriotic t-shirt with a noble bald eagle in front of the American flag. Think of those horribly cheesy (and theologically suspect) paintings of Jesus standing beside that American symbol. Think of all those national seals that proudly display the bald eagle. Now replace those eagles with a turkey. It's fantastic, isn't it?
Those commercials and patriotic montages in which purple mountains majesty are accompanied by the noble screech of the eagle (which is typically the cry of a falcon or hawk)? That is replaced by the helter-skelter "gobble gobble gobble" of a turkey. Instead of eagles soaring above football stadiums, they would release turkeys onto the field. The opening of The Colbert Report is now running rampant with turkeys. The possibilities are endless and, frankly, are reason enough to reconsider changing our national bird right now.
Sports and Popular Culture
If the eagle is no longer the national bird, does it become a go-to mascot. The Philadelphia Eagles drew inspiration for their mascot from the blue eagle logo of FDR's National Recovery Administration. If the turkey is the national bird, the eagle is not the logo and thus not the inspiration. I am not saying they are suddenly the Philadelphia Turkeys, but this Thursday you wouldn't be watching the Cowboys play the Eagles in their Tofu Day showdown that's for sure.
Does the eagle's diminishment lead to it not being referenced as much pop culture. For example, does Steve Miller Band's "Fly Like an Eagle" become "Waddle Like a Turkey"? And don't you kind of want to hear that song?
Public Service Announcements
Let me break down an indelible P.S.A. from my childhood. A kid--we'll call him Timmy--is at his locker. Suddenly, a bully/cool kid in a jean jacket comes up to him. "Hey, Timmy. You want to try some drugs. You know? Ma-ri-jua-na?" We tear away from the live action and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles begin to ask questions of what Timmy should do and some live action kids give some suggestions (say no, run away, etc.).
Then we cut back to Timmy's temptation. Jean Jacket says, "What are you? Chicken?" With steely resolution, Timmy declares, "I'm not a chicken. You're a turkey!" And our Ninja Turtle-endorsed hero slams his locker closed and walks away victorious.
If the Ben Franklin myth were true then Timmy would have just said, "You are a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade your Farm Yard with a red Coat on."
What the heck kind of message is that going to send to seven year old Chris about drug use? What's Timmy supposed to say when the turkey is revered as a symbol of our nation's idealized high moral character? It has to be another bird. And you know what? If we're going by what Ben Franklin said then I think we all know how Timmy would have shut down Jean Jacket.
"I'm not a chicken. You're a bald eagle!"