Nature teaches, now and then aided by history. Today, an Eagle – an American Bald Eagle – alighted in my tallest pine. I watched him. Unlike any other bird or animal, he seemed preoccupied. His eyes pushed the far horizon, searching for something. I wondered what.
We all know the Bald Eagle is America’s symbol – but often forget why, as well as how he ended up our symbol. The real story began exactly 250 years ago, in 1774, actually a year earlier, 1773.
In 1773, as in 2023, war was a concern, on the minds of many who lived in what would soon become the United States of America. The so-called French and Indian Wars ended that year, with Britain outflanking France to hold onto what then were colonies, that is, us.
Feeling their oats and concluding that we, the colonies, should pay for their war, the British passed what they called the Tea Act, which irked the politically incorrect colonists, who took their political incorrectness up a notch, dressed as Mohawk Native Americans, which they dared to call Indians, and dumped several hundred chests of tea into Boston Harbor.
While none of this was caught on camera, no one apparently wore buffalo horns, no record of English infiltrators in the mob, or any English sailors or members of the East India Company waiving these fake Mohawks aboard, the colonists did raise a stink, make a mess, and really piss off the King.
In 1774, the British promptly passed the Intolerable Acts, in effect centralizing power, ramping up government control over the colonists, and even mandating British soldiers be “quartered” in better housing, which would later produce our 3rd Amendment, barring any mandate to house British soldiers.
Most importantly, all this produced, also in 1774, the First Continental Congress. By 1776, things had gotten well out of hand, and the Continental Congress threw down, said enough, produced the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, influenced by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison, among others.
Next on the list, beyond waging and winning the Revolutionary War, was picking a symbol for the nation. Without jest, this also was decided on – made an issue to be decided on – in 1776. So, Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams were appointed to pick the national symbol, and bring it back to Congress for a vote.
Typical of Americans then and now, the three disagreed. Franklin did not want a turkey, as some suggest, although he later quibbled with the design for the eagle; he wanted a Bible scene featuring Moses dispatching the Pharoah’s troops, with God’s help.
Jefferson wanted a depiction of Children of Israel escaping slavery, which suggests a longer-range aspiration, with two Ando-Saxon warriors famous for battling a British monarch. Adams, never famous for understatement, wanted Hercules.
No one, apparently, thought of an eagle. The Continental Congress rejected all three designs and set up a new committee. Years of work produced a new design, a shield held by a goddess of liberty and justice. The Constitutional Congress gave that the thumbs down, and set up a new committee.
That one integrated the new flag into the design, carried by a warrior and Lady Liberty. That design was also rejected. Finally, another committee was formed, which came up with an eagle and dove symbol, but none on the Continental Congress seemed enamored by doves mid-war, so that was ditched.
In a bid for something new, the group turned to the Congress’ secretary, Charles Thomson, for some inspiration, and he returned with a symbol centered on the American Bald Eagle. Cleverly, he just wrote up a description, did not try to offer an artistic design – and his idea flew.
So, why was the symbol so popular, later described by Jefferson as the right choice, eventually part of the presidential seal? Because the bird is majestic, strong, unrivaled in the sky, and flies solo, or as the designer said, “denotes that the United States of America ought to rely on their own virtue.”
All that brought me back to the Bald Eagle in my pine, eyes farseeing, and my wonder. Eagles are vigilant, farseeing, and decisive, their eyes human-size, a million cones per square millimeter. They have a 340-degree field of vision, can see more than five times what a human can, best sight in the animal kingdom.
So, what was my Eagle seeing? Untroubled by wind in branches, cold gusts off the lake, or anything near at hand, he was focused intently on the horizon, where – when I followed his view – I could see nothing.
Truth is, I do not know what he saw, and after he had taken his fill of the view, he slowly gathered his strength under those extraordinary wings, leaned into the wind, and spread his full six-foot wingspan, notably heading for the far horizon, with what seemed neither urgency nor concern, but deliberation.
That noble bird is rightly our symbol, of who we are, who we must remember we are. Upon us now is the need to be farseeing, unafraid, focused and deliberative, aware of our surroundings, what it takes to survive, lead, and if necessary fly solo. Nature teaches, occasionally aided by history.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.