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The Bald Eagle is a grand and beautiful bird of prey that once frequently soared majestically through the skies of the American wilderness. It is also very important in American Indian culture (See: The Bald Eagle is a sacred bird in some North American cultures.) I had always assumed these were the reasons it was chosen as the USA's national bird, and appears on many American coins, seals, stamps, etc. See: The Bald Eagle is the national bird of the United States of America:

The Bald Eagle is the national bird of the United States of America...the Bald Eagle appears on most official seals of the U.S. government, including the Seal of the President of the United States and the Presidential Flag, and in many U.S. federal agency logos

Similar to my idea (but put far more eloquently...) we find this quotation, attributed to President John F. Kennedy: Why Is the Bald Eagle America's National Bird:

President John F. Kennedy added to the list of noble descriptors when he wrote to Charles Callison of the National Audubon Society on July 18, 1961: "The founding fathers made an appropriate choice when they selected the bald eagle as the emblem of the nation . The fierce beauty and proud independence of this great bird aptly symbolizes the strength and freedom of America."

I also found this, along similar lines: The Eagle, Our National Emblem

The bald eagle was chosen June 20, 1782 as the emblem of the United States of American, because of its long life, great strength and majestic looks, and also because it was then believed to exist only on this continent.

But we also find this: The bald eagle on the above mentioned page:

The bald eagle was chosen because of its association with authority and statehood in fact, the eagle had been used as a symbol of governmental power since Roman times.

Granted: This does not contradict what is also quoted there in the name of JFK: JFK only commented why the eagle was an appropriate choice, not on the actual reason for its choice. That is attributed to the bald eagle's "association with authority and statehood."

Also in Wiki (unsourced with regard to reason for the eagle) I found the following: The Bald Eagle is the national bird of the United States of America...

The Bald Eagle is the national bird of the United States of America. The founders of the United States were fond of comparing their new republic with the Roman Republic, in which eagle imagery (usually involving the Golden Eagle) was prominent. On June 20, 1782, the Continental Congress adopted the still-current design for the Great Seal of the United States including a Bald Eagle grasping 13 arrows and a 13-leaf olive branch with its talons.

Wiki seems to claim that the sole reason for choosing the eagle was because the Romans use eagle imagery, while blithely ignoring the contradiction mentioned there: The Romans used the **Golden Eagle, which is also common in the USA!** See: The Golden Eagle is one of the most extensively studied species of raptor in the world in some parts of its range, such as the Western United States...

I suspect a bit of anti-American editorializing on the part of the Wikipedia writers (who are neither particularly unbiased nor consistently reliable, and I believe I detect a slightly condescending tone in that sentence...) - they preferred to omit the more direct, aesthetic and patriotic reasons for choosing the Bald Eagle as the national bird of the USA, but I'm not sure.

In addition, in one of Wikipedia's references :Charles Thomson put together the final design for the Great Seal in June 1782 we also find this:

Although not specifically mentioned, clearly the American Eagle on the Great Seal represents liberty and freedom, a theme central to all three preliminary designs. Thomson underscored how the imagery symbolizes "Independence" by explaining that the shield is "born on the breast of an American Eagle without any other supporters, to denote that the United States of America ought to rely on their own Virtue."

Which again, Wiki chose to blithely ignore...

Do we have some definitive historical evidence that explains why the Bald Eagle was chosen as the USA's national bird? What is it? Is there any good reason why Wiki would choose to ignore the other reasons stated, and rely only on a vague and unsubstantiated allusion to the Roman Republic?

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Unexplained downvotes are not constructive. Please state your reason - perhaps the question (and the site at large) can be improved thereby. If I fail to accept an answer, it is simply because it has not answered the question. –  Vector Sep 1 '13 at 1:15
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ah ok. It was just an idea I had while having a coffee - I've found a few good answers from congressional records so I thought I'd give it a mention. –  Kobunite Sep 2 '13 at 17:54
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@Kobunite - Congressional records are certainly an excellent source and are readily available. Another good resource is the Federal Register, which is issued daily! See: Federal Register –  Vector Sep 3 '13 at 1:47
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Because the bald eagle looks badass and makes a cool noise? –  Tyler Durden May 13 at 20:50
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@Vector: they are not helpful indeed. However, there is a reason why you can downvote without giving a reason. This has been discussed on meta several times :) –  0xC0000022L May 18 at 2:54

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

As has been noted, the eagle became the national bird because it was chosen to be on the Great Seal, designed by Charles Thomson. The idea did not emerge out of thin air, however; the eagle is a very popular emblem with a very long history in heraldry. Two of the three committees designing the seal included the eagle in some form. Thus, Thomson would have been familiar with it, both from coins (Holy Roman, Spanish and Russian coins in circulation at the time included eagles in their designs) as well as the draft proposals he had been given.

More importantly, while Thomson was designing the Great Seal, he had access to Symbolorum et emblematum, an influential 1597 book of emblems by Bavarian Joachim Camerarius. That book happened to contain a depiction of an eagle with an olive branch and thunderbolts. The eagle grasping a thunderbolt has a lengthy history stretching back to Classical Antiquity, when it was an allusion to Zeus (or Jupiter, to Rome). This is believed to have been the inspiration for Thomson's design.

Changing the eagle to the bald eagle would have been an original idea, but a fitting one for America. The substitution of arrows for the thunderbolts meanwhile matched the theme of the second committee's proposal, as well as echoing the Dutch Republic Lion - the Dutch arms featured a lion grasping an arrow for each province of the Netherlands. In the same spirit, the Great Seal's bald eagle would grasp 13 arrows.

With regards to Wikipedia: so yes, the Zues/Jupter origin does sort of give it a tenuous link to the Roman Republic. But while I don't see it as "anti-American editorializing" per se, that wikipedia passage was apparently just wildly off base.

Sources:

  1. Patterson, Richard Sharpe, and Richardson Dougall. The Eagle and the Shield: A History of the Great Seal of the United States. Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, Department of State, 1978.
  2. Beans, Bruce E. Eagle's plume: The struggle to preserve the life and haunts of America's bald eagle. University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Addendum: in addition to the emblem book, Charles Thomson worked with the draft proposals of the earlier committees. Two of them also proposed using eagles.

The first committee, for example, included the Imperial Eagle of Germany. It was in one of six quarters the on the committee's shield, alongside French, Dutch, Scottish, Irish and English symbols, denoting the European countries whose people had populated the United States. The eagle appears in the bottom left quarter.

First Committee

The third committee also included an eagle, this time at the top.

Third Committee

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This answer was a long time coming, but I'm accepting because your sourced it very nicely to Symbolorum et emblematum and also provided some elaboration on the very unsatisfactory explanation in Wikipedia. –  Vector Jun 18 at 17:01

The bald eagle is the symbol of the United States due to its presence on the Great Seal of the United States. The Great Seal was developed by several different Congressionally-appointed committees and went through various design changes.

The first appearance of a bird on a proposed design was a phoenix, recommended by William Barton, an expert on heraldry. His design was as follows:

Barton design for the great seal

The phoenix appears twice, once above holding the flag and a sword, then on the shield of the seal, rising out of flames. This design was not accepted. In June of 1782, the Continental Congress approached its secretary, Charles Thomson, and asked him to provide a design. It was he that proposed the use of a bald eagle. Here is his design:

Charles Thomson design for the Great Seal

Why Thomson choose the bald eagle is unknown, but at the time it was a well-known bird unique to the United States and common in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Also, Thomson attended a school called the New London Academy (later the University of Delaware), which was founded by Rev. Francis Alison, who had been given a large land grant by William Penn located on the Bald Eagle Creek in Pennsylvania, so there may have been eagle symbology at the school. One influence for his design was undoubtedly the seal of the Dutch Republic, the only major other democracy in the world at the time. This seal (shown below) featured a lion holding a cluster of arrows. Thomson may have thought to replace the lion with the eagle and the sword with the olive branch.

enter image description here

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Because there seems to be no satisfactory historical reason given for why the bald eagle was chosen as the emblem of the United States, and because there is abundant evidence in other documentation from America's early history that the men who founded our country founded it on Biblical principles, I believe there is a great possibility that these men who relied on God may have used the Scripture reference Isaiah 40:31 as their basis. "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint." Perhaps it was not that the promoter of the emblem thought of America's own authority or its own independance at all, but ultimately of man's utter dependance on His creator as the foundation of America's endurance.

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the men who founded our country founded it on Biblical principles Downvoting this answer unless you can reliably source that statement-IMO it's a popular myth among some groups who would simply like to believe it's so. The Declaration mentions "Their Creator" - a very generic term-by no means biblical. The Constitution makes no mention of God or biblical verses, and is not biblically oriented in terms of the government it outlines. It's based on the Roman Republic, and the ideas of the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin etc were their students. –  Vector May 17 at 23:19
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In addition, the Bald Eagle is indigenous to North America, so I can't be the eagle referred to in the OT. If they wanted a biblical eagle, they should have chosen the Golden Eagle for example, which is found both in Eurasia and North America. It seems quite clear that the Bald Eagle was chosen because it represented something quintessentially American, not biblical. Franklin may have advocated the turkey, because it is of America ; a true original native of America. –  Vector May 18 at 2:05
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Besides the above mentioned problems with your answer, it remains mere speculation. Even we accepted your premise the men who founded our country founded it on Biblical principles, you have not proven that was the reason the Bald Eagle was chosen, but simply ventured a guess. –  Vector May 18 at 2:09
    
@Vector: I'd hold - although I cannot prove it - that this may have been in the heraldic tradition. And yes, obviously in such a case this particular species would make it kind of unique. Birds of prey - generally predators - are often to be found on coat of arms and similar. Also, the native Americans probably revered these birds as well (like so many others). –  0xC0000022L May 18 at 3:17
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but ultimately of man's utter dependance on His creator as the foundation of America's endurance - No way I can accept that: A dominant bird of prey with a fierce expression and outstretched talons bearing a sheath of arrows of war symbolizes dependence?! That's ludicrous IMO. –  Vector May 18 at 7:11

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