- Benjamin Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be the national bird. In a letter to his daughter after the bald eagle was included in the design of the Great Seal of the United States, he complained that the eagle was “a bird of bad moral character” because it stole food from other birds. The turkey is, "in comparison, a much more respectable bird . . . though a little vain & silly, a bird of Courage.” He is even credited with putting forth a case for adopting the rattlesnake as the symbol of the U.S. in a letter to a magazine in 1775. He wrote that the rattlesnake, unique to America, was a symbol of "wisdom, vigilance, magnanimity, and true courage."
- Uncle Sam was first mentioned during the War of 1812. He is thought to have originated in a reference to one Samuel Wilson, who sold beef to the U.S. Army. J.M. Flagg painted the most famous representation of Uncle Sam for the cover of Leslie’s Weekly of July 6, 1916. The painting was used to create the famous recruiting poster, prominent in both world wars, that shows Uncle Sam pointing his finger at the viewer and insisting, “I Want You for U.S. Army.” A similar patriotic figure, Columbia, was the female personification of the country. She first appeared in 1776, but started fading in popularity by the 1920s. Lady Liberty took her place in the popular imagination.
- Thomas Nast, perhaps the most famous political cartoonist in our history, was responsible for the popularity of two party animals. During the election of 1828, opponents of President Andrew Jackson labeled him a “jackass” for his populist beliefs. Jackson was entertained by the notion and ended up using it to his advantage on his campaign posters. Nast is credited with making Jackson's donkey the recognized symbol of the Democratic Party through one of his cartoons that appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1870. Four years later, also in Harper’s Weekly, Nast drew a donkey clothed in lion’s skin, scaring away all the animals at the zoo. One of those animals, the elephant, was labeled “The Republican Vote.” That's all it took for the elephant to become associated with Republicans.
- In 1752, the colonial province of Pennsylvania paid about $300 for a colossal bell weighing 2,080 pounds, to be cast in England. The first time it was rung, in 1753, it cracked. The great bell was melted down and recast twice in Philadelphia. Its inscription, "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof," echoes biblical Leviticus 25:10. Traditionally, it is thought that the bell was rung on July 8, 1776, to call people together to hear the reading of the Declaration of Independence, but historians doubt that story, because the bell steeple was so dilapidated by that time. When British troops captured Philadelphia in September 1777, that bell and all the other bells in Philadelphia were spirited out of town so that the British wouldn’t melt them down to make cannons. Once the bell was brought back to the city, it was rung many times to mark important events and anniversaries.
- Originally called the Old State House Bell or the Old Independence Bell, it didn’t become a national icon until later. The first documented use of the term “Liberty Bell” appeared in 1839, in a poem published in an abolitionist magazine. The bell cracked again on July 8, 1835, tolling with muffled clapper for the funeral parade of U. S. Chief Justice John Marshall. Now fractured beyond repair, the Liberty Bell is no longer rung, but it is struck on special occasions. On June 6, 1944, when Allied forces landed in France, Philadelphia officials struck the bell, and the tone was broadcast to all parts of the nation. Today the bell hangs in a glass-enclosed structure, Liberty Bell Pavilion, just north of Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
- From left to right, the images of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln appear on 5,725-foot-high Mount Rushmore, located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, 23 miles southwest of Rapid City. This national monument was created under the direction of sculptor Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941), who worked on the project from 1927 until his death. The heads are about 60 feet high and represent the nation's founding, political philosophy, expansion, conservation, and preservation. The first carving of Jefferson, to Washington’s right, was ruined by a flaw in the granite, so it was blasted off the mountain and carved anew on Washington’s left. Other problems occurred, and the final carvings were different from what was originally envisioned, representations of the presidents’ torsos to the waist.
San Diegans Richard Lederer and Caroline McCullagh are the proud parents of a bouncing baby book, American Trivia: What We All Should Know About U.S. History, Culture & Geography (Gibbs Smith Publisher, 2012). Over a span of a year, the co-authors will share with you their journey through American history. You can order inscribed and signed copies of the book by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.