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The Great Seal
… on its 200th anniversary. It took six years and seven tries—by such men as Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams—to come up with the official symbol of the United States. But what in the world does it mean?
June/july 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 4
By the eve of the Civil War the prolific American imagination had created a score of major symbols representing the United States. Most of these, like the rattlesnake, the liberty tree, Columbia, Yankee Doodle, and Uncle Sam, had, as symbols do, appeared unconsciously and anonymously. Only two, the flag and the Great Seal, were deliberately created by law. Almost nothing is known about the origins of the national flag—who proposed the design, what alternatives were considered—but nearly every step in the creation of the seal has been recorded. And there were many steps. The familiar if puzzling symbol on the dollar bill did not just happen: it was the result of an astonishing amount of work by some of the most gifted men in America.
The new United States of America was established in 1776, without the signs of an honorable corporate entity—a coat of arms to identify it and a seal (whose obverse would be the arms) to authenticate its acts. A few hours after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress “Resolved, that Dr. Franklin, Mr. J. Adams, and Mr. Jefferson be a committee to bring in a device for a seal of the United States of America.”
During the next month each of these three distinguished statesmen proposed various devices. Franklin and Jefferson turned to the Old Testament for inspiration. Franklin selected the moment when Moses causes the waters of the Red Sea to overwhelm Pharaoh and his army, with the scene accompanied by the motto “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” Jefferson chose the passage of the Israelites in the wilderness, guided by the divine cloud and the pillar of fire. Adams, looking instead to classical mythology, lit on Hercules. He proposed a scene of the hero pondering the fateful choice between the high road of virtue and the low road of self-indulgence. But despite all this winnowing of antiquity, the most important contribution made by these three founding fathers turned out to be the appointment of their consultant, Pierre Eugène Du Simitière.
Du Simitière, an intelligent and talented Swiss-born Philadelphia artist, proposed the form of a coat of arms (rather than an allegorical picture) for the seal but, in the three designs he made, came up with more appropriate ideas about the corporate identity of America than Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson combined. Five of these proved to be particularly valuable. Most important was the insight that what best characterized America was the idea of “out of diversity, one.” Du Simitière first interpreted this theme as “out of six nationalities, one nation” and so placed on the shield the emblems of England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, and Holland. In his final blazon he reinforced the basic theme by adding the idea of “out of thirteen states, one nation” and encircled the shield with a gold chain linking thirteen small silver shields, each bearing the initials of one of the states. The basic theme was then clinched by the motto, placed under the shield, E Pluribus Unum (“Out of many, one”), which was plucked from the title page of London’s Gentleman’s Magazine.
In the crest the consultant placed the “Eye of Providence in a radiant triangle whose glory extends over the shield.” As the chief right-hand supporter of the shield he proposed the Goddess of Liberty; for the left-hand supporter, the Goddess of Justice. On the border beneath the motto he placed the year 1776 in Roman numerals.
Jefferson was asked to put the committee’s final proposal together. Deciding he liked Franklin’s device better than Adams’s or his own, he suggested using it for the reverse, with Du Simitière’s device for the obverse, or arms. The committee approved, and the report was presented to Congress on August 20. Congress tabled it. The pressures of running a war pushed the subject into the background.
On March 25, 1780, Congress appointed a second seal committee, which contributed nothing except the appointment of Francis Hopkinson as its consultant. Again a committee had made a good choice. Along with possessing musical, literary, legal, and political talents, Hopkinson was a well-known student of heraldry. Moreover, he was a member of Congress from New Jersey and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He claimed to have designed the American flag in 1777 and may well have done so.
His two proposals included four new elements, chief among them placing the thirteen stripes of the new national flag diagonally on the shield and the union of thirteen stars in the crest, arranged in a circle with a glory. He also elevated Liberty to the chief figure on the reverse. He added the olive branch and used as the chief supporter “a warrior holding a sword.” Hopkinson’s proposal was approved by the committee and reported to Congress on May 10. The emphasis on the stars and stripes and Liberty was good but Congress apparently found the device otherwise uninspired. The proposal was turned down. The need for a seal became urgent in the spring of 1782. Peace with Britain was clearly not far away, and it was essential that a victorious America sign the treaty with its own sovereign seal. On May 4, 1782, Congress appointed a third seal committee, and once again the committee’s consultant did the work. He was William Barton, a twenty-eight-year-old Philadelphia lawyer familiar with heraldry.