Great Seal of the United States

On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress of the newly independent nation formed a committee with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to “bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America” (Congressional Resolution, July 4, 1776).
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The task proved to be far more difficult than expected. “It took six years, two more committees, and the combined efforts of 14 men before the Great Seal of the United States became a reality on June 20, 1782” (The Great Seal of the United States, Bureau of Public Affairs, September 1996, p. 2).

Du Simitiere Great SealThe First Committee

Franklin, Adams and Jefferson enlisted the assistance of portrait artist Pierre Eugene du Simitiere to create a design for the seal.

The Front of the Seal (The Obverse): The proposal included a shield with six symbols in the middle representing the six countries from which America had been populated (England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany and Holland). These symbols were surrounded by initials of each of the thirteen independent states of America. To the left of the shield stood Lady Justice, bearing a sword in her right hand and a balance in her left. To the right stood Lady Liberty, in a corselet of Armour (alluding to the current times) and holding in her right hand a spear and cap.

At the top sits “the Eye of Providence in a radiant triangle whose glory extends over the shield” (Congressional Committee Submission, August 20, 1776). Also included is the motto E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one) and a suggestion to include the date of independence MDCCLXXVI (1776).

First Committee Great Seal

The Back of the Seal (The Reverse): For the back side of the seal, the committee suggested a depiction of Pharoah being engulfed by the Red Sea before Moses and the Israelites, with the motto “rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”

Needless to say, the seal did not meet with favorable reception and Congress ordered the design to “lie on the table” (meaning it was not approved).

The Second Committee

In March of 1780, a second committee was formed that included James Lovell, John Morin Scott, and William Churchill Houston.

The Front: With the help of Francis Hopkinson (a signer of the declaration who had helped design the American flag and other government seals), the second committee changed the design on the shield to a simple 13 alternating red and white stripes, inspired by the American flag. They also added a constellation of 13 stars. On one side stood a soldier holding a sword, on the other Lady Peace bearing an olive branch. The motto was Bella vel Paci (for War or for Peace).

Second Committee Great Seal

The Back: Hopkinson describes his design, “Liberty is seated in a chair holding an olive branch and her staff is topped by a Liberty cap. The motto `Virtute Perennis’ means `Everlasting Because of Virtue.’ The date in Roman numerals is 1776.”

Once again, Congress did not approve the design but referred it back to the committee, which did no further work on the seal.

The Third Committee

In May 1782, Congress appointed a third committee that included John Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, and Elias Boudinot. They sought the help of William Barton, a young lawyer with artistic skill who had formally studied heraldy (a study of the history, design, symbolism, and associated ancestry of “coats of arms”) in England. Barton quickly produced a design, and the proposal was submitted just five days after the committee was formed.

The Front: Barton’s main contribution at this point was an eagle with spread wings atop the shield. He also included a lady on one side to represent the “Genius of the American Confederated Republic” and an American soldier on the other side. In the pillar in the shield is a “Phoenix in Flames”. Bartons mottos were “In Vindiciam Libertatis” (In Defense of Liberty) and “Virtus Sola Invicta” (Unconquered Because of Virtue Alone).

Third Committee Great Seal

The Back: For the reverse, Barton depicted a pyramid of thirteen steps with the Eye of Providence at the top. He used the mottos “Deo Favente” (God’s Favor) and “Perennis” (Everlasting). The pyramid had come from a Continental currency note designed in 1778 by Hopkinson, and the Eye of Providence came from the first committee.

Congress was still not satisfied, so on June 13, 1782, it presented the ideas of all three committees to Charles Thomson, the Secretary of Congress. Thomson was not an artist, but he knew how to get things done.

The Final Design

Thomson set his mind on simplifying the seal, as well as incorporating the best ideas from the three committees. Thomson collaborated with Barton to propose the final design to Congress on June 20, 1782.  Interestingly, Thomson did not present a drawing, but only a written description. Congress acted the same day to accept his proposal.

The Symbolism

Thomson explained the symbolism of his design as follows (all quotes are taken from Thomson’s “Remarks and Explanation,” a document submitted to Congress):

The Front:

The red and white stripes on the shield “represent the several states all joined in one solid compact entire, supporting a Chief [the blue top of the shield], which unites the whole and represents Congress. The motto [E Pluribus Unum, Out of Many, One] alludes to this union.”

The colors are adopted from the American flag; “white signifies purity and innocence, red, hardiness and valor, and blue . . . vigilance, perseverance and justice.”

“The olive branch and arrows denote the power of peace and war which is exclusively vested in Congress.”

“The Constellation denotes a new State [or nation] taking its place and rank among other Sovereign powers.”

“The Escutcheon [the shield] is born on the breast of an American Eagle without any other supporters [no other figures that help to hold up the shield] to denote that the United States of America ought to rely on their own Virtue.”

Note also, that the number thirteen representing the first thirteen states is represented in the stripes of the shield, the bundle of arrows and the constellation.

Final Great Seal

The Back:

“The pyramid signifies strength and duration.”

“The eye over [the pyramid] and the motto [Annuit Coeptis, He (God) Has Favored Our Undertakings] allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favor of the American cause.”

“The date underneath [MDCCLXXVI, 1776] is that of the Declaration of Independence, and the words under it [Novus Ordo Seclorum, A New Order of the Ages] signify the beginning of the new American era which commences from that date.”

Additional Resources:

The Great Seal of the United States: This links to a PDF publication of the United States Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs. This is a great site based off of the book The Eagle and the Shield:  History of the Great Seal of the United States by Richard S. Patterson and Richardson Dougall. It was published in 1976 by the Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, Department of State, under the auspices of the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration.

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