If you’re like most precious metals investors, you have at least one American Silver Eagle in your collection. A modified version of the national seal, featuring the Bald Eagle, is seen on the reverse. Have you ever stopped to wonder how and why the Bald Eagle was chosen as a symbol of the United States?
It all started at the Second Continental Congress, shortly after the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. The original thirteen colonies were freed from the rule of Great Britain and decided they needed an official seal. The task of creating the seal fell on the shoulders of a committee of founding fathers that included Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. But their design was largely rejected by congress, except for the statement E pluribus unum, meaning “out of many, one.”
Six years later, the work of two additional committees was also rejected by congress. In the summer of 1782, all previous work on the seal was given to Charles Thomson, the secretary of congress. He selected his choice of elements from the various designs and paired them with an eagle, based on a drawing provided by a Pennsylvania lawyer named William Barton.
Why an eagle? The eagle’s association with authority stems back to Roman times, when the bird was used as a symbol of governmental power. The founding fathers liked the idea of an eagle because it also symbolized strength, freedom, courage, and power. The hope was that these qualities mirrored those of the newly formed nation of America. Yet the decision wasn’t an easy one. Some men protested the eagle and suggested other birds instead. Most notably, Benjamin Franklin was in favor of the turkey, which he claimed to be “a much more respectable bird.” Despite his writings, the eagle was agreed upon by congress and was worked into a design for the official Seal of the United States.
The seal boasts a Bald Eagle with outstretched wings. It holds an olive branch in one talon and a bundle of arrows in the other. A shield sits in front of the bird’s chest, complete with red and white stripes and a blue field. Above the eagle’s head, there’s a cloud-ringed crest with a cluster of thirteen stars. The eagle holds a banner in its beak that bears the motto E pluribus unum.
The Bald Eagle’s role as the American national symbol, though linked to the creation of the US seal, wasn’t made official until 1787. At that point, many states had already begun using the eagle symbolically on coats of arms.
The US seal and variations of Bald Eagle imagery went on to be used on official documents, flags, public buildings, and currency. Today, the symbolic national bird is seen almost daily by Americans. Eagles can be found on all values of paper money, along with numerous coins like the Silver Eagle and quarters. Apart from official uses, the eagle is used for a number of decorative patriotic purposes.
Despite the majestic Bald Eagle’s status as our national bird, it has struggled with the threat of extinction over the years. Beginning in the late 1800s, the number of nesting eagles began dwindling due to hunting and destruction of their natural habitat. The Bald Eagle Protection Act was passed in 1940, making it illegal to kill, own, or sell these birds. They were added to the endangered species list in 1978 after many eagles died from eating prey contaminated with a pesticide called DDT that was widely used after World War II. Fortunately, several regulations and federal protections helped the Bald Eagle population recover enough to be moved from the endangered species list to the threatened species list in 1995. And in 2007, the Bald Eagle was completely removed from the list.
Now that the eagle has regained safe population numbers, it’s up to us to preserve the species and educate future generations to do the same. For people with an interest in wildlife, this may involve taking your children to a zoo or animal sanctuary to learn more about birds of prey. But it can also involve something as simple as showing your children or grandchildren an eagle on American currency and providing some basic facts about them, like how eagles have a wingspan of up to seven feet and a lifespan of 30 to 35 years in the wild (or up to 50 years in captivity).
Remember those American Silver Eagles we mentioned earlier? They can provide a wonderful springboard for educating loved ones not only about our national bird, but about the value of investing and saving as well. Each time you hold an ASE—or an American Gold Eagle, if you prefer—you’re connecting with a piece of our country’s history.
What is it about the Silver Eagle that captures your attention? We’d love to hear about your connection to your most valued coins.