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The principle national symbols for the United States of America are the stars and stripes of old glory and our national animal, the irascible and awesome bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)–but this was not always so. Our search for national icons initially took us in different directions. To celebrate the upcoming Fourth of July, I would like to write about some of these early national symbols. Some of our founding fathers thought like me, and we could have had a tree, a poisonous serpent, or a turkey!
Throughout the eighteenth century, New England merchant vessels flew a pine tree standard (which showed a pine tree on a white background). This long-standing imagery fit together well with the sons of liberty movement whose members adopted the elm tree under which they first convened as an emblem. The early American navy from the New England area thus flew tree flags with the words “An Appeal to Heaven” or “An Appeal to God.” There was a drawback, trees, though very stately, do not make for immense dynamism. the nation needed a livelier national emblem, preferably an animal.
Hence, an even more popular early American flag was the famous/infamous Gadsden flag which showed a rattlesnake coiled up and ready to strike on a yellow background. Despite the fact that it is the same yellow as signs used for check cashing establishments and liquor stores with lots of bulletproof glass, I really like the Gadsden flag. That rattlesnake is not kidding around. It is unclear whether she is a timber rattler, Crotalus horridus, or an eastern diamondback, Crotalus adamanteus (which seems more likely, since the flag’s champion, Christopher Gadsden was a congressman from South Carolina) but whatever the case she is a beautiful snake and she is posed very evocatively. The rattlesnake had been an American emblem for a long time. An early cartoon shows how the colonies must join together or risk being like a chopped up snake. Rattlesnakes carried a powerful fascination for people of the time, in fact, Benjamin Franklin was a huge fan of rattlesnakes and he wrote about them with perfervid admiration. Here’s an excerpt from an essay he wrote about rattlers in 1775:
I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.—As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shewn and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?
Franklin did not succeed in making the rattlesnake the national emblem but the rattlesnake still remain a national emblem. In fact today the rattlesnake-themed first navy jack is the flag flown by active duty United States Warships. The timber rattlesnake is also the official state reptile of my home state, West Virginia.
After independence was declared, congress argued for six years about the image which would adorn the great seal. In June 20, 1782, they finally chose the eagle, which became the official national bird five years later. Franklin famously did not care for the eagle. Smarting from the rejection of the rattlesnake, he penned a sarcastic response to the bald eagle seal (which other detractors claimed looked like a turkey):
For my own part I wish the Eagle had not been chosen 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 near the river, 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 his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird 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 Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country…
I am on this account not displeased that the figure is not known as a Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the truth the Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.
This is a grim assassination of the eagle’s character. I think Ben may have been a little too hard on bald eagles which can be fearsome hunters and are certainly magnificent animals, but I do love the idea of a turkey as the national bird and now wish he had pushed harder. on this sight we have already showed that they are brave, freedom-loving fowl (and capable of virgin birth to boot).
Despite my love of turkeys, I think the national animal needs to be truly magnificent and intimidating. Therefore, for my own part, I think we should have chosen the killer whale as a national emblem. These creatures live in all of the world’s oceans and range from pole to pole. Since they are really giant dolphins, they possess tremendous acute intelligence. They live a long time and form close family bonds, however their strength and ferocity are unparalleled in the animal kingdom (also we wouldn’t be duplicating the Romans who used eagles as their battle standards).
Perhaps the truest manifestation of patriotism is to choose all of the above. There is no reason the eagle can’t share glory with rattlesnakes, trees, and orcas! It suits the national character to have all sorts of magnificent creatures under one big crazy tent [editor’s note: no, no, no…do not put these animals together in a big tent]. On that note, I hope you enjoy Independence Day. Drink whiskey play with fireworks and pet an eagle to show you love America! [editor’s note: Do not play with fireworks while drinking whiskey. Do not pet eagles!] Happy Fourth!