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The Great Seal

July 2024
8min read

… 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?

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.

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.

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.

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