Freedom Flyer: The Story Behind the Bald Eagle Symbol
This weekend when celebrations for the 2016 July 4th weekend get underway, people may be catching a sight of a celebratory decoration that isn’t just the American flag’s stars and stripes. In its company will be the national bird of the United States, the bald eagle.
It has long been the practice of homeowners to hang a winged eagle figure on the front of their home. To this day, garages across America feature these metallic birds posing mid-flight.
“Hanging an eagle is a decorative way for homeowners to show their patriotism,” says Mark Morris, sales manager at Montague Metal Products, a family-owned and operated manufacturer of wall and flagpole eagles. In fact, roughly 99 percent of Montague’s customers are homeowners.
By the time Independence Day rolls around, the company sees an increase of nearly 40 percent in eagle-related product sales. “Many of our buyers tell us that they hang our eagle products on their homes when they have paid off their mortgages,” says Morris. The eagle becomes a sign of “freedom from mortgage payments,” he adds.
Great American Symbolism
“The power and autonomy of the eagle in the air makes it a symbol of unrestrained freedom,” says Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence, a professor of veterinary medicine and anthropology at Tufts University. The bald eagle’s ties to one of our country’s founding virtues made it an obvious decorative addition to the 200th birthday celebrations.
While the patriotic connotation of these ornaments is widely recognized, what’s perhaps less known is that these eagles present an understanding of freedom beyond just patriotism.
But how exactly did the bald eagle come to represent freedom in its various forms?
Why The Eagle Flies High
The bald eagle was first introduced to American culture as the centerpiece of The Great Seal of the United States (the same seal that you’ll find on every one-dollar bill across America). However, the process of designing the seal was far from simple.
On the afternoon of July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress commissioned Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin to design a seal for the newly formed United States of America, according to a 1909 State Department-commissioned report on the seal.
Six years (and three committees) later that the seal was finally approved by Congress. This was after both Jefferson and Franklin’s design were outright rejected. In their place, artist William Barton proposed a design featuring an eagle.
He was not the first. The eagle has long been a symbol of power and bravery. In Roman times the eagle was used to symbolize military prowess, and some Native Americans collected an eagle feather for each of their bold or courageous accomplishments, Atwood said.
It wasn’t until the secretary of Congress combined the best of all three committees that the Great Seal we see today was produced, and the bald eagle — a species native to the Americas — was introduced to our nation as a symbol of freedom.
Six years into the process, this final design was a hit. The “elegant figure” of the eagle evokes the bird “darting upon and destroying the vitals of tyranny” and “hurling them under the feet of the Genius of America,” praised one Philadelphia sculptor.
While the Turkey Does Not
However, the sentiment was not universal.
The eagle “is a bird of bad moral character” and “a rank coward,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in a letter to his daughter, according to Smithsonian Institution documents.
Franklin’s passionate disapproval was not without reason. Small mother birds often chase eagles to protect their young. Franklin apparently felt this mouse-chasing-cat imagery was not “a proper emblem for America.” That being said, it was not as if Franklin didn’t offer suggestions.
“The turkey is a much more respectable bird,” explains Franklin in the letter. “And withal a true original native of America.”
Regardless, it is not the turkey but the bald eagle that was decided to occupy the center of the Great Seal of the United States, and to this day represents freedom and liberty in our nation. And with those values in mind, it will remain the eagle that hangs above garages across the nation this July 4.