Give me some good news, would you? Make it substantive, something big.
Make it patriotic, something all Americans can be glad about. Make it different, something the rest of this news crazy, ever-blathering planet is not talking about. And, oh yeah, give me a link to American history, something that makes me ponder our past – far and near. How about it?
Sure thing. The year was 1776, date July 4, Declaration of Independence up for approval – and was approved. If I may say, there is your first bit of good news – and a touch of history.
Second bit: On that same day, the Continental Congress passed a little-noticed, though long-remembered resolution (to borrow from Lincoln, who would not be born for another 33 years, not deliver his Gettysburg Address for another “Four score and seven years,” not coincidentally).
That big, second resolution – also passed on July 4, 1776 – read: “Resolved, that Dr. Franklin, Mr. J. Adams, and Mr. Jefferson be a committee to bring in a device for a seal of the United States of America.” That is right, Ben, John, and Tom were America’s first marketing or branding firm before we were even a country. Call it brash confidence, something like that.
Well, they came back – and while the Declaration was a global hit, except in Britain, their branding ideas were a flop. The committee offered three ideas since a consensus – not surprisingly – was hard to reach.
Ben wanted a seal that featured Moses, Red Sea, raised wand, chariot, and motto “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” Catchy might have caught on, but John and Tom were critics.
John wanted Hercules, Virtue, a mountain and reclining, suggestive beauty. He had yet to be appointed emissary to France but had the right flare. Tom, by contrast, wanted the Children of Israel, pillar of fire, Saxon chiefs, and some lofty words.
They all lost, and a new committee – several in succession – got appointed. That said, in 1782, a year before the Revolution ended (in our victory, more good news), one of the committees reported back with a straightforward, simple, winning idea: Use the American Bald Eagle.
Contrary to urban legend, Ben Franklin did not oppose this new symbol of the United States of America or offer the turkey – although that makes good Thanksgiving banter. The Eagle – which the Roman Legions and others had adopted with success – became ours.
Here begins the real story. While the Eagle was made part of The Great Seal in 1782, and after 1789 began appearing on American coinage, currency, documents, flags, and buildings, something else was happening.
What began as an estimated 100,000 Eagles across America began shrinking.
Eagles were predators – like lions, tigers, and bears, oh my! They started to be hunted, stuffed, and by the late 1800s, habitat was slipping. Our Eagle population was shrinking.
Stunningly, rather soberingly, by 1940, we faced the prospect of possible – no Eagles. Long before the Environmental Protection Agency or Endangered Species Act, Congress swiftly passed the National Emblem Act, aimed at protecting the Eagle. The goal was preservation.
Unfortunately, virtuous and vicious cycles slow uneasily. In early 1963 – rather incredibly – the United States was down to ten nesting pairs per state; total pairs left tallied 417. That was it.
President John Kennedy wrote (more history): “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. But as latter-day citizens, we shall fail our trust if we permit the Eagle to disappear.” Real concern took wing. See, e.g., The American Bald Eagle.
The American Eagle was disappearing. By 1972, two Eagles circles circled the lake below our Maine mountain home. They had long nested there, but DDT had done damage. Their eggs broke annually, softshells, no young. While Eagles live long, no young is a death knell. The thing was personal.
In 1978, Congress again spoke – putting the Eagle on America’s Endangered Species List. DDT was banned. The question was whether actions taken based on new science would work.
For a time, nothing changed. The pair we knew had no young, although they nested and tried. Then – as so often happens by the Grace of God, a marvel of Nature – something changed. Babies began to appear, only one or two at first, many false starts, then more.
Wind the clock ahead, and by 1995, numbers were measurably up. The Eagle’s status went from endangered to threatened, which meant they were not out of the woods but on their way. By 2007, having fully recovered, Eagles were removed from the endangered species list entirely. See, e.g., How did the bald eagle become America’s national bird?.
By 2009, numbers were on a sustainable, positive, and virtuous cycle, with 71,400 nesting pairs across the United States – not yet back to 1776 levels but closing on the 100,000-bird target. Now comes the good news, since we are due for some of that, right?
In 2021, COVID be cursed, the American Eagle is roaring back. According to the national Migratory Bird Program, the American Bald Eagle population hit 316,700 birds in the lower 48 states in early 2021. See, e.g., America’s Bald Eagle Population Continues to Soar.
Americans of every stripe had something to cheer, raise a glass to, take pride in. From less than a thousand birds – our national symbol – to more than 300,000 today and rising, we did it. This is not the end of all global conflict, not the last challenge America will face, and not a panacea, but this is good news – substantive, patriotic, different, historic, and meaningful. We still have our work cut out for us, but we have signs of hope, and none better than our American Eagle.