DIBACCO: How the Founders created the Great Seal

Their work produced a symbol of the new nation’s power

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On this date in 1782 the Continental Congress adopted the Great Seal of the United States, a symbol that required more attention by the Founding Fathers than any other document in early American history, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Indeed, it took three congressional committees and six years to agree on a final proposal.

Of course, the obvious question was why, on the same day that Congress approved the Declaration, it appointed a committee made up of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams to come up with a design for the seal. What was so important about a seal, especially in view of the obvious fact that the war with Great Britain was only beginning in 1776 — and it might not be successful?

The reason was that the accoutrements of the war for breaking with the mother country were just as important as the military and diplomatic muscle. To prove to Britain that Americans were serious in their resolve for independence, they had to have a legal imprimatur to affix to negotiated documents with Britain and other nations, such as for the exchange of prisoners, as well as for the final resolve, the treaty ending the war. The seal had to be just right, reflecting America’s mission not only then but for the future.

The problem was that America’s leaders were not experts on heraldry or coats-of-arms and, of course, wanted to make certain that whatever was designed would represent a clear break with the monarchical traits of Great Britain. At the same time, they wanted nations to respect the unity of the new nation’s democratic resolve and, most importantly, its military power and diplomatic finesse.

The committee report of Franklin, Jefferson and Adams was made on Aug. 20, 1776. The front, or obverse, side of the seal presented illustrated a female figure representing Liberty, the reverse depicted Moses’ parting of the Red Sea, with the inscription, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” Congress tabled the report.

Not until March 25, 1780, was a second committee appointed, with different members, and on May 10, it presented its report. Like the first committee, this one was aided by design experts. Still, the result was lackluster, with the obverse illustrating a shield with 13 diagonal stripes and a figure with an olive branch, another with a bow and arrow. The reverse pictured a female Liberty lady sitting down, in one hand an olive branch, in another a long staff. Congress sent it back to the committee.

Finally, a third committee was appointed on May 4, 1782, with some urgency in getting the matter settled. The Battle of Yorktown in late 1781 appeared to give Americans the edge in winning the war, and the new nation needed a diplomatic seal as soon as possible. The committee acted quickly, with its proposal before the Congress five days later. Again, there was a shield of 13 stripes in the middle of the obverse, surrounded by a maiden on one side and a warrior on the other. The entitlement was “Genius of the American Federated Republic.” The reverse included a pyramid with 13 layers, with the Eye of Providence at the top. Deo Favente, “In God’s Favor,” was the motto.

Instead of tossing this last seal, Congress on June 13, 1782, turned all three committee reports over to its secretary, Charles Thomson, a 53-year-old Latinmaster in Philadelphia, with the plea to come up with a winning design. One of the most able and unsung of the Revolutionary leaders, Thomson worked with another Philadelphian, William Barton, with dispatch and care, and in a week came up with a product that Congress accepted on the same day. Although emendations have been made to the Thomson-Barton work over the years, the Great Seal of the United States, best exemplified by its presence, beginning in 1935, on the one dollar bill, essentially reflects what was adopted in 1782.

The obverse of the seal is dominated by the bald eagle, with a shield across its breast of 13 alternating red and white stripes, representing the original states. In his talons, the eagle grasps, on the right, an olive branch standing for peace and, on the left, a quiver of arrows illustrating war. Above the eagle, 13 stars are placed in a blue background in circular design. On the reverse side of the seal, a pyramid with 13 layers represent strength and duration, with an eye at the top and the Latin “Annuit Coeptis,” meaning “He [God] has approved our undertakings.” At the bottom of the reverse, “Novus Ordo Seclorum” suggests that, indeed, a new order of the ages has been created.

One final but important point, indicating attention to subtlety in the seal, is that the bald eagle on the obverse faces the olive branch, reinforcing, as illustrated by the history of the Revolutionary War and the nation’s subsequent history, that peaceful negotiation is — and would be — the first choice of the nation.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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