I spotted two Bald Eagles today in Cincinnati, which is really fitting for the Fourth of July. The two Bald Eagles—one indolent and one vigilant—capture not only the attitudes of two influential figures in American politics about this national symbol that was hotly debated till 1789, but they also reflect the fractured character of these United States.
You probably already know that Benjamin Franklin was an outspoken detractor of the bald eagle. He stated his disinterest in the national symbol in a letter to a friend:
“I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character; like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy. The turkey is a much more respectable bird and withal a true, original native of America.”
In contrast, President John F. Kennedy wrote to the Audubon Society:
“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.”
The two Bald Eagles, which symbolize, in my estimation, two divergent historical viewpoints, show us that American history is splintered into sharp conceptions of the past as it has been politicizedly revised to forge a more perfect union. There is little question that the tendency toward seeking out varied intellectual interpretations of US history is unabating and maybe essential to the growth of a mature republic. On holidays like the Fourth of July, however, a modicum of romanticism of the past is also required if revisionist histories make it harder and harder for the average person to develop a classicist vision of the Republic as a good—if not perfect—union and make it seem like a simple-minded theory.
The two Bald Eagles aren’t just symbolic of the past; they also stand for partisanship and apathy in the present toward issues like inflation, NATO strategy, Roe v. Wade, and a variety of other divisive concerns. In addition, I learned there is an unfortunate debate on whether to have a 4th of July concert without hearing the 1812 Overture. For those who are not familiar, it is a musical composition by the Russian composer Tchaikovsky that has become a staple for July 4th events since 1976.
In view of this divisiveness here is my unsophisticated theory of American unity for the present moment: Although the rhetoric of entrenched divisiveness and the rage of political factions—against internal conflicts and international relations—are not silenced by the Fourth of July fireworks, the accompanying music, festivities, and the promise of harmony, they do present a forceful antidote to both. So why have a double mind on a national ritual that serves as a unifying force and one of the few restraints on partisanship? Despite the fact that I am a resident alien, I propose preserving Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, arousing the inner dozing Bald Eagle, and making an effort to reunite the divided attitude toward all challenges. The aim, in my opinion, should be to manifest what Publius calls in Federalist 63 the “cool and deliberate sense of community.”