Why the Bald Eagle Wasn’t Supposed to Be the National Bird

Updated: Feb. 24, 2022

The bald eagle is an American national symbol but there were some crazy other options.

1 / 7
Victorian Traditions/Shutterstock

Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams Failed to Come up with an Official Seal

If you’ve ever wondered why is the bald eagle our national bird, we’ll give you the circumstances around the decision. When three of the founding fathers fail to come up with something Congress liked it would seem the nation would forgo an official seal. Two other committees also failed to come up with something acceptable. Discover 10 flag facts you’ve never heard before.

2 / 7
Tory Kallman/Shutterstock

Franklin Wasn’t Crazy About it

The popular story surrounding Ben Franklin and the eagle is that he wanted the turkey instead. That’s not entirely true. He never voiced any displeasure with Congress about having an eagle as the national bird. Instead he lamented to his daughter in a 1784 letter he felt like the eagle looked like a turkey and further opined that the turkey might in fact have more moral character than the eagle. Learn the incredible history behind every state flag in the U.S.

3 / 7
Erin Donalson/Shutterstock

Franklin Actually Proposed the Rattlesnake

In 1775 Franklin proposed the country use a rattlesnake as the national symbol in a letter later attributed to him that was published in the Pennsylvania Journal. Franklin after all is the one who came up with the snake divided into eight sections with the words, “Join or Die” underneath. Franklin explained that part of his thinking in choosing the rattlesnake was because it wasn’t found outside of America. Find out how to drive snakes away from your home.

4 / 7
Michal Ninger/Shutterstock

The Eagle was Small

The eagle design Franklin criticized was created by Pennsylvania lawyer William Barton. Charles Thomson, the secretary of Congress replaced it with an American bald eagle. Plan the perfect patriotic party with these awesome tips.

5 / 7

The Competition Was Fierce

Among the other birds under consideration were a two-headed eagle, a rooster, a dove and a phoenix in flames, which really isn’t a bird. The debate of the Great Seal goes back to 1776 and Congress didn’t adopted a seal until 1782. The bald eagle wasn’t officially chosen as the national bird until 1789.

6 / 7
Keep Smiling Photography/Shutterstock

A Real Debate

Franklin suggested a Biblical scene of Moses and Pharaoh. Jefferson suggested a scene of children of Israel and two Anglo-Saxon figures. Adams wanted Hercules. Eventually elements from each of the three committees were combined to create the Great Seal and it included the bald eagle.

7 / 7
Vladimir Kogan Michael/Shutterstock

Golden Eagle was Considered

As the Founding Fathers set about determining the national bird discussion turned toward using a golden eagle but as a new nation made up of former Europeans who saw several other countries use the golden eagle, they gave up the notion.