We’re dealing with “a Bird of bad moral Character,” wrote Benjamin Franklin. The bald eagle, agreed William Bartram, was nothing more than “an execrable tyrant” who “supports his assumed dignity and grandeur by rapine and violence, extorting unreasonable tribute and subsidy from all the feathered nations.”
But the bird had been good enough for the ancient Romans who mounted miniatures on their standards as they marched to battle. And, as we saw in our last post, the eagle would suffice for the new Republic. In almost no time, on wings of patriotism and the desire to create a national iconography, the image of the bald eagle lifted from the Great Seal to, larger than life, the hearts and minds of the new Americans.
In his museum on Independence Square, artist Charles Willson Peale exhibited portraits of the Founding Fathers and a living, breathing bald eagle that screamed at him in recognition. Peale had great expectations for the nation and, so too, for his eagle, hanging its cage with the sign: “FEED ME DAILY 100 YEARS.” Peale’s eagle lived for a decade in captivity, from 1795 to 1805, and after it died he resurrected it, posed and stuffed.
In the new century, the prolific chisels of Peale’s sculptor friend, William Rush, secured for the bald eagle a permanent place in the American decorative motif. Rush’s carved and gilded eagles appeared in churches Saint John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church (it’s now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) and on public buildings, including Fairmount Waterworks (this piece is now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Carved, cast or painted, eagles were becoming the go-to patriotic icon.
By the mid-century, the place of the eagle was secured not only in the American hearts and minds, but on America’s streets. In 1848, the Philadelphia Gas Works welcomed home soldiers returning from the Mexican-American War in a display at Independence Hall. An eagle with “a halo of stars” hovered above a thirty-foot “Goddess of Peace,” one of the many “figures in fire” of bent gas-pipes lit by 4,000 gas jets.
Eagles appeared on buildings throughout the city: Chestnut Street; 8th Street: and Broad, where John McArthur, Jr. (later the architect of Philadelphia City Hall) mounted a giant eagle six stories above the entrance, above the cornice of his new luxury hotel, LaPierre House.
When the nation celebrated its 100th birthday in 1876, the roof line of Memorial Hall crackled with personifications of Industry and Commerce, Agriculture and Mining, Science and Art. On each of four corner pavilions were perched four eagles, 16 in all, made of galvanized zinc and with huge wing span. Sometime after the Centennial, Memorial Hall’s eagles had no problem taking off, never to be seen or heard of again.
At Philadelphia City Hall, on the other hand, the eagles mounted at the foot of the Founder stayed put. Sculptor Alexander Milne Calder topped City Hall tower with four bronze eagles with 14-foot wingspans.
With a second new century came still more eagles. After the Louisiana Purchase exhibition in 1904, John Wanamaker bought and installed in his department store August Gaul’s giant bronze bird. And, as Penny Balkin Bach tells us in Public Art in Philadelphia, when New Yorkers decided to demolish Pennsylvania Station in 1963, Philadelphia’s Market Street Bridge got four of Alexander Weinman’s 22 granite eagles. The rest were distributed to locations around the country. But Americans everywhere knew Weinman’s eagles from his representation on the reverse of his “Walking Liberty” half dollar.
After more than 200 years, could we possibly be growing weary of the eagle, tired of its fierce and serious pose? Not so long as we continue to interpret the bird freshly, which may mean ironically, satirically or humorously, whether in blinking neon or bronze. “The important thing,” as Jacques Lipschitz sculptor of the “Spirit of Enterprise” on Kelly Drive put it, is finding and working with “some kind of freedom in expression.” And wasn’t that one of the freedoms the Founders had in mind?