Updated: Nov 28, 2022
Did you ever wonder why the American Bald Eagle is the symbol of the United States? The simple answer is that at the time of the American Revolution, most of the colonists couldn’t read, so a symbol could represent the United Colonies was far better than words.
The resulting symbol was an eagle with a banner above its head that read: E Pluribus Unum, Latin for “from many, one.” From many colonies, to one nation—not a bad motto, I think.
But there’s more. The eagles’ talons are holding two different things. One is holding a collection of arrows; the other, an olive branch. This is hugely important, but not obvious. Look closely at these two depictions that I included. Besides the obvious differences, there is something more subtle: One eagle is looking at the arrows, the other, at the olive branch. “So what,” you say.
The early depictions depicted the eagle looking at the arrows, which symbolized the strength of the new nation. Those early Americans wanted their enemies—the British and French, to understand that the United States would defend itself just as it had during the Revolutionary War.
And it was no idle threat. Don’t forget, the British had another go at retaking America in 1812, and they almost pulled it off. They even burned down the White House. Had it not been for a freak hurricane (yes, a hurricane in Washington, DC) the Brits probably would have succeeded.
Following World War II in 1946, the then president, Harry Truman, announced that the eagle was going to undergo a change. The world had enough of war, he said. So he declared that from then on, the American Eagle would look toward the olive branches, a universal symbol of peace. If you have a current dollar bill, you'll note that the eagle is indeed looking at the olive branches; if you have a prewar bill, he is looking at the arrows.