Ben Franklin’s Two-Bird Economic Theory

If you’re like me, a lover of roast turkey at Thanksgiving and the
holidays, this is a good time to reflect on the turkey’s proud
heritage. You might be surprised to know that one of our founding
fathers, Benjamin Franklin, gave a lot of thought to that bird and its
future role in America. He believed that the turkey, not the bald eagle,
should be the national bird. He also thought that we should plaster
pictures of the turkey on our coin and bills, giving the turkey place of

In a recent New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik,
the writer reveals some highly fascinating ideas about Franklin and the
symbolism of birds, specifically the turkey and the bald eagle. The
turkey, I learned from Adam Gopnik’s article, is the Meleagris gallopavo and in the 18th
century the most local of birds. Indeed, we slammed on the brakes just
Wednesday before Thanksgiving to avoid plastering a wild turkey across
the pavement in Wellesley, Massachusetts. 

But it was a glorious moment in the 1780’s when Benjamin Franklin
argued that the turkey should be the national bird, not the bald eagle.
Gopnik explains that Franklin’s ideas are not a “finger-on-the-nose bit
of Old Ben playfulness.” Franklin, like Warren Buffett, didn’t believe
that there should be hereditary legacies in American life. And he used
the turkey and the eagle to make his point. 

Ben Franklin’s two-bird theory:

Franklin sorted economic philosophy between the turkey and the eagle.
 His economic point was that though the eagle was classy looking, it
made its living by feeding on the helpless. To him, the eagle was
reflective of old Europe, its class structure and its inequities. 

A couple years ago while fishing with my youngest grandson, Henry, we
watched the gulls grab the dead minnows we tossed out. Suddenly out of
the blue sky swooped a huge bald eagle, taking the minnow from one gull
while in mid-flight. My grandson had it right: “That eagle is a mean
bird,” he commented. He stole from the pathetic gull—and the gull flew
away in fear. (Bald eagle-lovers will claim that this libels eagles.
But. . . what would you expect from eagle-lovers?) 

For Franklin, Henry’s comment about the eagle is spot on. Admittedly,
the turkey has an easily distracted mind and artificially swelled
breast. But Franklin knew that though the turkey might be silly and
vain, it shares the feed with the other birds in the yard. It’s a hard
worker, disciplined and it follows the rules. And, like a lot of
barnyard birds, it’s quite willing—eventually–to give hell to anyone
who tries to make trouble. 

In Franklin’s world of symbol-building, the national bird question
was just one instance of the issues of freedom. He believed that people
who work hard and play by the rules should have a fair shot at
prosperity. He also rejected the notion that self-indulgence and
genetics should be rewarded. 

That wise Republican, David Brooks,
summarizes the conflicts of the turkey and the eagle best. He asks
which values will be rewarded and reinforced? The choices are effort and
self-discipline. Or, bad governance and rigged systems? 

It strikes me that Franklin’s thinking about the turkey and the eagle is even more relevant today than in the 18th century. 

Hope your Thanksgiving was as enjoyable as mine, and that you prefer turkey.

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