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Why is the Bald Eagle America’s National Symbol?

The bald eagle’s much-loved role as a national symbol is linked to its 1782 mark on the Great Seal of the newly formed USA.  Shortly after the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress gave Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson the job of designing an official seal for America.

Great Seal of The United States

Great Seal of The United States

Congress continuously rejected designs put forward by the founding fathers. Incredibly Congress delayed its approval for 6 years, during which time it appointed two additional committees. Adams condoned the figure of Hercules, contemplating images of Virtue and Sloth, but admitted this was “too complicated a group for a seal or medal, and it is not original.”

Franklin produced a biblical scene for the new design: Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his hand over the sea,  to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity.

Jefferson’s proposals were similar to Franklin’s. But in addition to the emblem of Moses and Pharaoh, Jefferson mooted, on the reverse, “Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.”

Adding their own proposals the three members of the committee also commissioned the Philadelphia artist Pierre Eugène du Simitière to design a proposal. Du Simitière presented a shield displaying the traditional symbols of the six European nations that had settled North America. The shield was surrounded by thirteen shields representing the newly formed states. The shields were framed by the goddess of liberty and an American rifleman. It also displayed the motto “E Pluribus Unum,” and the eye of Providence.

It eventually gave the role to find an appropriate seal to Charles Thomson, the secretary of Congress. Thompson put together what he thought were best elements of previous submissions including an eagle submitted by Pennsylvania lawyer William Barton from the third committee proposals. However, the small white eagle Barton used was replaced by the indigenous bald eagle.

It may be suggested the adoption of an eagle was not massively out of tune with the previous proposals for the eagle was an highly respected icon from the past, used by Roman legions. Moreover it has always been seen as a symbol of strength.

Seal of the United States

Roman Eagle

Writing to his daughter in 1784 Franklin wrote he criticized the new design though it is thought his objections were never serious. He said: The medals were, “tolerably done.” He added:

“”I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our Country; he is a Bird of bad moral Character.” Franklin was in fact pleased that the eagle on the Cincinnati medals looked more like a turkey, since “the turk’y is in comparison a much more respectable Bird. Though “a little vain and silly,” the turkey remains “a Bird of Courage,” who would quickly attack any British grenadier “who should presume to invade the Farm Yard with a red coat on.”

Congress adopted this design on June 20, 1782. As the design went on to appear on official documents, currency and flags, public buildings and other government-related items, the bald eagle became an American icon.

The areal bald eagle, that typically lives in mountainous areas of the United States of America has had a perilous few hundred years while the new country has been in existence. In the late 1800’s, the country was home to 100,000 nesting bald eagles, but the number of birds shrank due to habitat destruction and excessive hunting.

1978 the bald eagle was earmarked for the endangered species list in the U.S. A new range of bills were passed protecting the great bird. In 1995 the bald eagle population had recovered enough for the status of the bald eagle to be changed from, ‘endangered’ to ‘threatened’.

Thankfully, in 2007 the bald eagle was removed from the ‘threatened’ species list and it’s not hard to see why the Bald Eagle is America’s national symbol…

American bald Eagle

American Bald Eagle

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