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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
Within four days Barton laid before the committee two successive proposals for an “armorial achievement.” His first, for the arms alone, contained no fewer than thirty-one ideas about America expressed in twenty-nine emblems and two mottoes—an incredibly complex and congested device. His second was almost as bad, containing twenty-five emblems and four mottoes distributed over the arms and the reverse. Several elements in the proposals by Du Simitière and Hopkinson were retained: the Eye of God, Liberty, the American warrior as one of the supporters, the stars, the thirteen stripes, and a motto praising Virtue. To these he made some notable additions of his own: for the arms a small displayed German eagle symbolizing the sovereignty of Congress; for the reverse, an altogether new pyramid of thirteen courses with the motto Perennis (“Everlasting”) over which he placed the Eye of God fortified by the new motto Deo Favente (“With God’s favor”). Barton’s reverse, a striking break with Hopkinson’s proposal, contributed the basis of the reverse we have today.
The committee accepted Barton’s second proposal, complicated and impractical as it was, and reported it to Congress on May 9, 1782. Congress, which had had the good sense to reject the proposals of the first two committees, also declined that of the third. For a month it did nothing about the seal. Then, on June 13, as a last resort, reports and sketches of all three committees were sent to Charles Thomson, secretary of Congress, for review and a fresh proposal that would bring order out of chaos.
This was an excellent move. Thomson was alert, highly intelligent, deeply concerned about the American cause, and respected by everyone. Immediately and unanimously elected secretary of the First Continental Congress, in the fall of 1774, he had been, by now, for eight years its indefatigable and indispensable wheel horse. Although he had no particular interest or skill in heraldry, he now promptly applied his idealism, clear judgment, and knack for getting things done to the task of producing a new design.
In a few days Thomson produced a new proposal. The obverse restored some key elements proposed by earlier committees and dropped by Barton— E Pluribus Unum, MDCCLXXVI, and the constellation of thirteen stars; it retained the thirteen stripes and the eagle; to balance the olive branch Thomson added a bundle of arrows. But because of two innovations, the effect was entirely new, a visually radical departure from the thinking of Du Simitière, Hopkinson, and Barton. First, Thomson eliminated the two large allegorical figures serving as supporters of the shield, thus achieving strategic simplification and focus. Second, he selected the eagle to be the center of this focus—transforming Barton’s German version into the American bald eagle and making it his chief symbol of the United States. Moreover, he was not satisfied with Barton’s heraldic “eagle displayed” and instead specified an eagle “on the wing and rising.” Barton’s eagle was a mere symbol of sovereignty, Thomson’s was one of strength, independence, power, authority, and victory. Thus Thomson did what no other individual or committee had been able to do: he provided the nation with a compelling symbol of the American corporate identity that was new, dynamic, and illustrious.
Furthermore, Thomson’s eagle tied together all the other emblems on the arms. On its breast was placed the armorial shield that had been central to the devices of all three committees, simultaneously making the eagle the bearer of the shield and the shield the protector of the eagle. The eagle’s right talon grasped the olive branch, symbol of the power to make peace, and its left talon a bundle of arrows, symbol of the power to make war; in its bill was a scroll with the motto E Pluribus Unum. And “over the eagle’s head,” as Thomson put it, shone “a constellation of stars surrounded with bright rays and at a little distance clouds.” An equally prominent place was given to the thirteen red and white stripes representing the states—on the shield in the form of interlocking chevrons.
As for the reverse, Thomson took the basic idea of Barton’s device and improved it in five important ways. He kept the Eye of Providence surrounded with a glory but fortified the symbolism by specifying that it now be “an Eye in a triangle surrounded with a glory.” He kept the pyramid, but specified that it be “a pyramid unfinished,” thus adding a whole new dimension of meaning to this symbol of the United States. He restored the key symbolic date MDCCLXXVI, placing it on the base of the pyramid. Finally he strengthened the motto at the top from the rather passive Deo Patiente (“With God’s favor”) to the more active Annuit Coeptis (“God has favored our undertakings”) and replaced the static Perennis (“Everlasting”) with the much more ringing and prophetic Novus Ordo Seclorum (“A new order of the ages”) to proclaim the nation’s place in history.
Thomson preserved for the seal the three great metaphors that had emerged to describe the new nation: an eagle, a constellation of thirteen stars, an unfinished pyramid based on the principles of 1776 and rising under the Eye of God. He also gave the seal its three great mottoes, rescuing the first and creating the second two.