Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
The American Eagle
June 7, 2013
By Aaron Belz
The eagle has served from time immemorial as a symbol of power, speed, and dignity. Biblical authors, ancient Greeks and Romans, tribes, families, nations, and institutions down through the centuries have rallied around eagle imagery. The eagle has inflamed poets’ imaginations too, memorably Alfred Lord Tennyson’s, whose 1851 poem “The Eagle” begins, “He clasps the crag with crooked hands,” and concludes with a memorable display of quiet strength: “He watches from his mountain walls, / And like a thunderbolt he falls.”
The American eagle, designed by Charles Thomson in 1782, has played a more specific role in our history. Bearing in its right talon an olive branch and in its left thirteen arrows, it signifies the dualism of peace and war—grace and justice. A banner in its beak says, “E Pluribus Unum.” (Out of many, one.) With a shield on its chest and stars over its head, it is an overburdened symbol, or at least multitasked. Ben Franklin had argued for the turkey to be our national bird (a historical detail made much of by Stan Freberg), but that idea was shot down.
The American eagle has been adapted to each period in American history, reflecting our changing sense of who we are. In “The Custom-House,” his preface to The Scarlet Letter (1850), Nathaniel Hawthorne describes a “spacious edifice of brick” whose windows look down upon Salem’s old wharf. From it flutters a vertical American flag, and crowning it is an “eagle, with outspread wings, a shield before her breast, and, if I recollect aright, a bunch of intermingled thunderbolts and barbed arrows in each claw.”
This eagle, summoned from the shadows of Hawthorne’s memory, is not an entirely positive one. Romantic authors regarded the State as a threat to individuality and freedom. The following passage is outright negative: “With the customary infirmity of temper that characterizes this unhappy fowl, she appears, by the fierceness of her beak and eye and the general truculency of her attitude, to threaten mischief to the inoffensive community; and especially to warn all citizens, careful of their safety, against intruding on the premises which she overshadows with her wings.”
The State is self-protective, “unhappy,” waiting to meddle in citizens’ business. Guarding a custom house, this eagle is especially interested in people’s financial business. “Nevertheless,” adds Hawthorne, “vixenly as she looks, many people are seeking, at this very moment, to shelter themselves under the wing of the federal eagle.” The problem is that although citizens trust her with their protection, she is emotionless, animal. She “has no great tenderness, even in her best of moods, and, sooner or later,—oftener soon than late,—is apt to fling off her nestlings with a scratch of her claw, a dab of her beak, or a rankling wound from her barbed arrows.”
Ninety years later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech, in which he warns against US appeasement of dictatorial powers, features a different form of American eagle: “As a nation we may take pride in the fact that we are soft-hearted; but we cannot afford to be soft-headed…. We must especially beware of that small group of selfish men who would clip the wings of the American eagle in order to feather their own nests.” Faced with the Third Reich, this American eagle represents hard-headedness, the brave resolve of going into war for a good cause. This eagle of patriotism is the one we now know best, not the governmental wisdom of Thomson’s original or the overbearing federalism of Hawthorne’s Romantic iteration. Our American eagle is a symbol of national pride, often applied to military purposes.
The eagle I most appreciate, the eagle of my childhood, appears on a large neon sign along Route 40 in St. Louis, Missouri. It’s an Anheuser-Busch animated billboard that brightens and darkens in a mesmerizing way. If I am Hawthorne, this is my American eagle overlooking the old town and its now European-owned brewery. It’s a symbol that literally changes constantly, important to me because it points the direction to my home, fifteen miles west of the city limits.
- Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His most recent collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010).
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”