On the afternoon of July 4, 1776, right after signing the Declaration, the Continental Congress appointed three men – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin – to create a design for a national seal.
MIKE KEELER: Where Eagles Dare (Or Not)
They each had different ideas, but ultimately agreed on a Lady Liberty holding a shield defending the United States. The idea was presented to Congress, and it was roundly rejected. The colonies were at war with England, and folks were naturally looking for something a little tougher, a little fiercer. Moreover, the Founding Fathers were heavily influenced by Roman imagery and symbols, due to to the miraculous discovery of Pompeii just a few years earlier. So, in their ambition, they looked to that earlier empire…
…where the very first battle standards were nothing more than a handful of straw attached to the top of a spear or pole. Later, as Rome developed, the straw was replaced by one of five animals: a Wolf, a Horse, a Boar, an Ox with a man’s head, or…an Eagle. In 104 BC, as part of a military reform, Rome standardized and simplified its imagery, and the four-legged creatures were dropped. From that point on, the Eagle became the defining symbol of Roman power, and was enshrined for all time on Roman coins, public buildings and memorials.
With this in mind, the Founding Fathers turned to Philadelphia artist William Barton, and asked for a neo-classical design featuring an Eagle. Sure, said Barton and started on a design using a Golden Eagle. But then folks realized that several European powers were already using that bird. And so the brief was changed: Mr. Barton, can you give us something nice featuring a Bald Eagle?
Ben Franklin hated the idea, saying, “I wish the Bald 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 labour 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 Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him… 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.”
Franklin was denied, but his comments may have influenced the artist, as Barton’s final design features a bird that is technically a Bald Eagle, but is frankly a bit of a Turkey. No matter, the Founding Fathers loved it, and this design was officially approved on June 20, 1782, a mere six years after the beginning of the project. (You can see it here.)
And thus, the birth of the nation’s mascot. The image was quickly adopted and applied to the country’s coins, documents and public buildings.
Meanwhile, in the first decades of the nascent American empire, a new architectural style was being developed – called Federalism – which made use of neo-classical Roman lines, and which, not surprisingly, took up the raptor imagery in a big way. Eagles in the architecture, Eagles in the decoratives, Eagles in the fabrics.
The Federal style first popped up in Boston, and then made its way south through New York and Philadelphia. (You can read more about Eagles and Federalism via Boston’s own This Old House, here.)
And by 1830, Federalism had become commonplace, and reached the nation’s heartland. Even so far as the little country crossroads of Pennington, New Jersey, where several grand Federal-style farmhouses were built, and still stand to this day. With lots of Eagles everywhere.