The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ben Franklin didn’t champion turkeys. In fact, they never survived encounters with him.

It’s a myth that Franklin lobbied to make the turkey our national symbol. The truth is more complicated.

From left: Benjamin Franklin. At right, a turkey. (Photo illustration) (iStock)

Benjamin Franklin, the most colorful of America’s Founding Fathers, had a misunderstood, electric and ultimately homicidal relationship with turkeys.

Where to begin?

Probably with the longest-running episode of fake news this country has ever seen.

Going back more than 100 years, many Americans — including the editor of this history blog, who is from Franklin’s hometown of Philadelphia — have genuinely believed that Franklin thought so highly of turkeys that he wanted one to serve as the country’s national bird and symbol.

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Even at this very moment, children researching Franklin on the Internet for a school project would quickly encounter this turkey baloney.

“Benjamin Franklin contributed much to the growth of the United States,” according to the “homework help” section on Bright Hub Education. “He was very bright and had a very curious mind.”

So far, so good.

“It is amazing to see how much Ben Franklin accomplished,” the website continued. Yep. He was a fireman, newspaperman, publisher, scientist, postmaster, and, of course, an electricity guru who invented the lightning rod.

But then, under the section “More Fun Facts,” there is this nugget: “Franklin thought the turkey should be the national bird, rather than the bald eagle.”

No he didn’t.

So where did this fake news emerge?

Not Russia.

According to a Harvard University project that debunks myths concerning the Declaration of Independence, the Franklin-Turkey connection is just one giant misunderstanding that stemmed from Franklin being misquoted a very long time ago.

Presidents didn’t always pardon turkeys. Some birds became dinner.

Here’s what happened.

Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were on a committee that was supposed to come up with a national seal. The founders were many things, but not artistic.

In letter to his wife, Abigail, Adams wrote, “Dr. F. proposes a Device for a Seal. Moses lifting up his Wand, and dividing the Red Sea, and Pharaoh, in his Chariot overwhelmed with the Waters.” Jefferson proposed “the Children of Israel in the Wilderness, led by a Cloud by day.” As for Adams, “I proposed the Choice of Hercules,” he wrote, “as engraved by Gribeline in some Editions of Lord Shaftsburys Works.”

There was no mention of turkeys or bald eagles. There was also no winning design.

The idea for a seal languished until 1782, when Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress, proposed the seal still used today — with the bald eagle.

What about the alleged turkey?

Well, according to the Harvard project and Franklin biographers, that dates back to a letter Franklin sent his daughter in which he wrote: “For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly.” As for the turkey, Franklin wrote that it “was a much more respectable Bird.”

Those few sentences are the quotes that have been passed down through history. But the letter itself — and in its entirety — had nothing to do with the national seal. Franklin, a known jokester, was being Seinfeld-like in an attempt to denigrate the seal of a hereditary club called the Society of the Cincinnati.

“The joke,” according to the Harvard project, “is based in the idea that the Society’s symbol appeared to some to look more like a turkey than an eagle.”

Guess you had to be there.

Anyway, even with the turkey misunderstanding now cleared up, the history of Franklin and turkeys cannot be considered complete until another chapter is examined: His wanton execution of them.

Decades before Franklin was extolling the virtues of turkeys, he was electrocuting them to test the power of electricity. In a 1750 letter to his scientist buddy Peter Collinson, Franklin wrote of several experiments on fowl designed to measure how much electricity was needed to kill them.

A small amount, Franklin wrote, was “sufficient to kill common Hens outright ... the Turkies, tho’ thrown into violent Convulsions, and then lying as dead for some Minutes, would recover in less than a quarter of an Hour.” But by adding nearly double the juice, “we kill’d a Turky with them of about 10 lb.wt. and suppose they would have kill’d a much larger,” Franklin wrote.

So maybe that explains Franklin’s respect and deep admiration for turkeys. They were hearty. They didn’t go down without a fight. They were America.

But maybe not.

The real reason is probably another observation he noted in his letter.

“I conceit,” he wrote, “that the Birds kill’d in this Manner eat uncommonly tender.”

Follow these steps to perfectly breakdown your entire turkey and keep its meat moist until serving time. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin, Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)

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