- Historic Sites
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
There now took place, over a period of a few days, a crucial collaboration between Thomson and Barton. On his own initiative and with his customary tact, Thomson forwarded his proposal to Barton for his judgment. Barton approved all of Thomson’s key ideas. However, he also made nine changes, some of them very important. For the shield he had an inspiration. Here he substituted thirteen vertical white and red stripes (pales) for Thomson’s chevrons and added a blue horizontal panel (chief) above them. This was an improvement visually but even more so symbolically for, as Barton’s “remarks” make clear, the pales stood for the states and the chief for Congress. It was a happy addition. More important was the restoration of his own “eagle displayed” for Thomson’s eagle “on the wing and rising,” since having the wings raised and spread was visually more pleasing than seeing them pointing down with the talons reaching upward.
Barton also specified that the number of arrows be thirteen. But several of Barton’s changes Thomson wisely turned down. It is clear that the device in its final form was the work jointly of Barton and Thomson—the obverse being Thomson’s improved by Barton, and the reverse Barton’s improved by Thomson. The catalytic agent in the process that produced the final seal, however, was clearly Thomson.
Taken together, the fourteen emblems and three mottoes of the seal make several powerful statements. On the obverse: that the United States is like the victorious bald-headed eagle, shielded by the interdependence of the several American states and the Congress, which has sovereign power. It is also like a constellation of thirteen stars surrounded by “a glory breaking through a cloud.” Its genius lies in the special alchemy of “out of many, one.” On the reverse: that the United States, in the strength and durability of its structure is like the Great Pyramid; it is unfinished, its foundation is the Declaration of Independence, and it rises toward completion under the protecting care of Providence.
On either June 19 or 20, only one week after being assigned the job, Thomson wrapped up the results of his collaboration with Barton in one last blazon and presented it to Congress. On June 20 Congress approved the report and the “United States in Congress Assembled” finally had a seal and a coat of arms.
And while the Great Seal has been improved visually in the years since, this three-committee, seven-designer official symbol of the United States of America is the one we see today.