That Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be the national bird is the stuff of legend. What is certain is that the rotund and oversexed founding father was less than enthusiastic about the Bald Eagle. In a letter to his daughter, Franklin wrote that the eagle had a "bad moral character," that he did not "get his Living [sic] honestly" and that he is a "rank Coward" who gets driven away by birds much smaller than he.
Due to his distaste for the bird, Franklin was at least somewhat amused by the depiction of the white-capped eagle on the Society of the Cincinnati Medal, which he thought more resembled the fan-tailed, earthbound gobbler.
Franklin may not have seriously wanted the turkey to serve as a symbol of the new nation, but he did propose that the rattlesnake take a turn. He argued that "the ancients considered the serpent as an emblem of wisdom" and that "the Rattle-snake is found in no other quarter of the world besides America, and may therefore have been chosen, on that account, to represent her."
A $20 note from Georgia, issued in 1778, features a seal with a Rattlesnake under the motto NEMO ME IMPUNE LACESSET ("No one will provoke me with impunity"). This design is comparable to the famous standard of the Continental Marines (DON'T TREAD ON ME) and Franklin's own 1754 cartoon (JOIN, OR DIE).
Unfortunately for the snake, the Colonial era was the height of its symbolic glory. The snake appears here and there, but it is the eagle that got the last laugh. The eagle has soared proudly or stood stock still in heraldic pose on our nation's coinage since the first coins were struck at the first Mint in 1793.
But our nation's coinage has a colorful history, especially when it comes to the depiction of animals. The following is a brief overview of animals that have appeared on our nation's coins and the issues on which they appear.
The badger appears on the 1936 Wisconsin Territorial Centennial half dollar. The furry critter was designated Wisconsin's official state animal in 1957, although colloquial use of the term "The Badger State" goes back to the 1800s.
The beaver is featured on the obverse of the 1936 Albany Charter Anniversary half dollar.
The bison is well-represented on American coins, appearing for a 25 year run on the Indian Head (Buffalo) nickel from 1913-1938, then reappearing on the 1991 Mount Rushmore Golden Anniversary half dollar reverse, the 1999 Yellowstone National Park dollar reverse, the American Buffalo commemorative dollar of 2001, the American Gold Buffalo bullion coin series starting in 2001, the 2005 Kansas quarter reverse, the 2006 North Dakota quarter reverse, and the 2010 Yellowstone National Park quarter reverse.
Cows, both living and dead, are represented. John Pell, the Lord of Pelham Manor, holds onto a calf on the obverse of the 1938 New Rochelle, New York, 250th Anniversary half dollar. Cow skulls are depicted on the 1935 Old Spanish Trail half dollar and the 2007 Montana quarter reverse. A dairy cow appears on the back of the 2004 Wisconsin quarter.
Besides the eagle, birds of all types make their way into the annals of American numismatic lore:
-The Bananaquit adorns the 2009 U. S. Virgin Islands quarter.
-The California Condor is on the 2005 California quarter.
-The Carolina Wren is shown on the 2000 South Carolina quarter.
-The Chinese Ring-necked Pheasant is emblazoned on the 2006 South Dakota quarter reverse.
-Loons and Mallards are realistically depicted in their native environments on the 2003 and 2005 Arkansas and Minnesota quarter reverses.
-The wise old owl, symbol of Minerva, appears on Robert Aitken's elegant and rare 1915-S Pan-Pac half union reverses, while Ben Franklin's turkey finally debuts alongside a wolf and a turtle on the 2013 Native American dollar.
Fish and aquatic mammals also appear on U.S. coins. The dolphin is depicted on the 1915-S Pan-Pac dollar and half union. King Salmon leap out of the water on the reverse of the 2007 Washington quarter and are carried in the mouth of the feared Grizzly Bear on the 2008 Alaska quarter reverse.
Speaking of Grizzlies, the giant bear is on three classic commemoratives:
-The 1925 California Diamond Jubilee half dollar
-The 1935 and 1936 California-Pacific Exposition (San Diego) half dollars
-The 1936 San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge half dollar obverse.
Two mythical creatures get in on the action too. A mermaid is on the uniquely strange 1935 Hudson Sesquicentennial half dollar, and the hippocampus appears on the 1915-S Pan-Pac quarter eagle.
But perhaps no animal outside of the eagle has appeared on more coins than the horse.
The horse is depicted in statue form on the 1900 Lafayette dollar reverse; in duplicate on the 1925 Stone Mountain Memorial half dollar obverse; the 1936 York County Tercentenary half dollar obverse; the 1983 George Washington 250th Anniversary half dollar obverse; the 1995 Civil War Battlefields half eagle obverse; and a spate of State quarters, including Delaware (1999), Kentucky (2001), Nevada (2006), and Wyoming (2007). Most recently, the horse appears on the reverse of the beautifully-designed 2012 Native American dollar.
America's love for animals is deeply rooted, not in heraldry, but in the idea that America was and is a frontier country, wild and rugged, and made for conquest and conquering. Franklin may have found some humor in the selection of the eagle above all other animals, but we certainly cannot deny the impact of animals on the American story as told by our nation's coins.