Ben Franklin, Semiotician

by | Boston, USA

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

tags: americas, culture, making sense

Thanksgiving Day is a harvest festival celebrated — in the United States — on the fourth Thursday of November, i.e., tomorrow. Whether the holiday was first celebrated by the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation (Massachusetts, my home state) in 1621, or earlier and elsewhere by Spanish explorers, is a disputed question among historians, Also, there is no real evidence that turkey was served at the Pilgrim's first thanksgiving feast. Nevertheless, along with pilgrims and Native Americans, turkey is an indispensable signifier of Thanksgiving — familiarly referred to as "turkey day." This might not have been the case, though, had one of the country's Founding Fathers succeeded in convincing his peers that the domestic turkey would serve as an appropriate official emblem for America itself.

In 1784, a little over a year after the US Congress adopted Charles Thomson's pompous neoclassical design for the Great Seal of the United States, the centerpiece of which is a bald eagle, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to his daughter, in which he lamented: "For my own part 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. 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."

Franklin's letter continues: "I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in 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."

Of course, some of my country's critics might argue that — for these very reasons — the eagle has, in the end, turned out to be a perfect emblem of the United States. To them, and to those who disagree with them alike, I say: Happy Thanksgiving.

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