A school mascot is an example of a symbol — something that stands for something else. In most cases, mascots are symbols of strength and power.
Nations use symbols, too. They are used to give people a sense of belonging and to show others what is important about the nation.
In America, our national symbols have become a part of our everyday lives. Whether it’s the beloved American flag, the Bald Eagle, or Uncle Sam himself, these symbols represent basic American ideals. And respecting and displaying these symbols are ways we show our patriotism.
The ‘Power of the Land’ It was a simple gift — a feather from a bald eagle — but it carried a powerful message.
When a Native American chief presented England’s King George II with an eagle’s feather as a gift of peace in 1734, the chief told the king it represented the “power of the land.” Since then, the bald eagle has symbolized America’s great strength.
The eagle, with its majestic appearance, has been a symbol of power since ancient times. The United States made the eagle its official national bird in 1782 to signify the country’s independence and its strength. You’ll find the eagle on coins, paper money, and stamps, as well as in the Great Seal of the United States.
Unfortunately, the bald eagle has been an endangered species since the 1960s. By the 1970s, there were only about two to three thousand bald eagles nesting in the lower 48 states. But conservation efforts in recent years have allowed the bald eagle to make a strong comeback.
Is the bald eagle really bald? No. The bald eagle’s head is covered with white feathers, giving it the appearance of baldness.
What a turkey! There were some people — including Benjamin Franklin — who thought the turkey should be America’s national bird. But after much debate, the bald eagle’s majestic appearance proved more appealing, and it was chosen instead.
It’s Official - At the time of our country’s independence, European countries had their own official seals, which they used on important paperwork. So when the United States gained independence and became a nation, it, too, needed an official seal. That seal, adopted by the U.S. government on June 20, 1782, became the official symbol of our nation.
The face, or front, of the seal, which is the part that’s used on official documents, carries an American eagle with a shield on its breast, symbolizing self-reliance. The shield contains 13 vertical stripes, which represent the 13 original colonies as they did on the flag of 1777. (On the shield, seven stripes are white, while on the flag, seven are red.)
The eagle clutches an olive branch with 13 leaves and 13 olives in its right talon and 13 arrows in its left talon, symbolizing the power of both war and peace.
In the eagle’s beak is a banner with the words, “E pluribus unum,” which is Latin for, “One out of many.” This represents a single, united nation formed out of many states. Above its head is the constellation from the 1777 flag, with 13 stars.
Originally, the “chief” above the stripes on the shield symbolized Congress. But since 1789, it has represented all branches of government.
On the Flip Side Although it is not used on documents, the reverse side of the Great Seal also has interesting symbolism. There is a pyramid of 13 layers of stone, which represent the Union. The pyramid is watched over by the Eye of Providence, which is enclosed in a triangle. Sound familiar? It should. These symbols are found on a common, everyday item. Can you figure it out? (The images and words found on the back side of the Great Seal of the United States are also found on the back of the $1 bill.)
Decisions! Decisions! Because of the importance placed on the Great Seal of the United States, it wasn’t easy to decide on its design. It took Congress 12 years for its members to finally reach an agreement!
1. We use symbols to communicate important facts or ideas. Look through your newspaper for patriotic symbols. Pick one and, on a piece of paper, describe the fact or idea that the individual, group, or business is trying to communicate.
2. If you could choose a new mascot to represent the United States, what would it be? What would you name it? Work in small groups to come up with a mascot that symbolizes something special about this country. Draw or describe your choice for the rest of the class.
3. Work with a partner to find out what has been done to save the bald eagle. Then, on your own, write a mock letter to the editor expressing your thoughts about protecting our national bird.