Designing the Great Seal of the United States
On July 4, 1776, the same day the thirteen states united to declare themselves an independent nation, the Continental Congress took the next step necessary to demonstrate this Independence. They began to create their national emblem, the Great Seal of the United States.
Like other nations, America needed an official symbol of sovereignty to seal and authenticate her international treaties and transactions. The new nation needed a symbolic signature others would recognize and honor.
During the next six years of the Revolution, three different committees submitted ideas for this graphic image of America, but none were acceptable. In June 1782, Congress turned the task over to Charles Thomson, one of their most visionary men.
Using symbolic elements from all three committees, plus imagery and mottoes of his own, Thomson created a bold and elegant design.
A week later, he presented it to Congress. That same day, Congress approved the two-sided design. The Great Seal of the United States was officially adopted on June 20, 1782 (six years before the Constitution). Its design has remained unchanged since then.
In September 1782, the first Great Seal die was cut and used to begin sealing the peace with England. For 225 years, the Great Seal has ratified international agreements of peace, cooperation, and trade. Representing the people of America, it seals their promise to other nations.
Blazon of the Great Seal of The United States
Continental Congress – June 20, 1782
Blazon of the Great Seal of the United States
The Secretary of the United States in Congress assembled to whom were referred the several reports of committees on the device for a great seal, to take order, reports
That the Device for an Armorial Achievement & Reverse of the great seal of the United States in Congress assembled is as follows.–
Paleways of thirteen pieces Argent and Gules: a Chief, Azure. The Escutcheon on the breast of the American bald Eagle displayed, proper, holding in his dexter talon an Olive branch, and in his sinister a bundle of thirteen arrows, all proper, & in his beak a scroll, inscribed with this Motto. “E pluribus unum”.–
For the Crest
Over the head of the Eagle which appears above the Escutcheon, A Glory, Or, breaking through a cloud, proper, & surrounding thirteen stars forming a Constellation, Argent, on an Azure field.–
A Pyramid unfinished. In the Zenith an Eye in a triangle surrounded with a glory proper. Over the Eye these words “Annuit Coeptis”. On the base of the pyramid the numerical letters MDCCLXXVI & underneath the following motto. “novus ordo seclorum”
First Great Seal Committee – July/August 1776
“Resolved, That Dr. Franklin, Mr. J. Adams and Mr. Jefferson, be a committee, to bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America.” – July 4, 1776, Journals of Continental Congress
For the design team, Congress chose three of the five men who were on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. Although these distinguished committee members were among the ablest minds in the new nation, they had little knowledge of heraldry. To help convey their vision, they chose the artist Pierre Eugène Du Simitière to work with them.
The four men consulted among themselves between July 4 and August 13, then each brought before the committee a suggestion for the design of the Great Seal.
The same day Congress received the committee’s report, it was “Ordered, To lie on the table.” In other words, Congress was unimpressed by their design.
Two of its design elements, however, were chosen for the final Great Seal: the eye of Providence and the motto E Pluribus Unum.
Also, some of the meaning of Franklin’s motto is seen in the one eventually used above the radiant eye on the reverse side of the Great Seal: Annuit Coeptis (Providence has Favored Our Undertakings.
Second Great Seal Committee – March 1780
The Continental Congress formed a second committee on March 25, 1780 – four years after the first committee made its report. The chairman was James Lovell (Massachusetts). The other two members were John Morin Scott (New York) and William Churchill Houston (New Jersey.
The committee sought the assistance of Francis Hopkinson, the prominent and gifted Philadelphian who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and designed the new American flag that Congress adopted in 1777.
Experienced in designing seals, Hopkinson did most of the work of this committee which delivered its report to Congress about six weeks later, on May 10, 1780.
Like the first committee’s design, Congress did not consider the second committee’s suitable, thus did not approve it.
In Hopkinson’s preliminary design (above), the figure supporting the shield’s right side was originally an Indian warrior holding a bow & arrow and carrying a quiver of arrows. The motto means “Prepared in War or in Peace.”
Francis Hopkinson’s Sketches of His Design
The shield of thirteen diagonal white and red stripes is supported on its right by a warrior holding a sword and on its left by a figure representing Peace bearing an olive branch. The crest is a radiant constellation of thirteen stars.
The motto beneath the shield, “Bello vel Paci,” means: For war or for peace.
On the reverse side, 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.
Third Great Seal Committee – May 1782
A third committee was formed on May 4, 1782, as peace talks were underway in Paris between the United States and Britain. America would soon need a Great Seal to properly ratify a peace treaty.
The committee consisted of chairman Arthur Middleton and John Rutledge (both of South Carolina) plus Elias Boudinot (New Jersey). Virginia’s Arthur Lee seems to have replaced Rutledge early on. As with previous committees, they sought a consultant and were referred to William Barton.
Only 28 years old, Barton had studied heraldry in England. Right away, he came up with a design that was far too complex for purposes of a seal. A few days later, he offered a second design, which the committee submitted to Congress on May 9, 1782. Below is Barton’s sketch of it.
The shield is supported on its right by the “Genius of the American Confederated Republic” represented by a maiden, and on its left by an American warrior. At the top is an eagle and on the pillar in the shield is a “Phoenix in Flames*.”
Upper motto: “In Vindiciam Libertatis” (In Defense of Liberty).
Lower motto: “Virtus sola invicta” (Only virtue unconquered).
For the reverse side Barton suggested a pyramid of thirteen steps with a radiant eye above it. His sketch (below left) was undoubtedly influenced by the pyramid on the $50 Continental Currency note designed in 1778 by Francis Hopkinson, the heraldry consultant and artist on the second Great Seal committee (1780).
Upper motto: “Deo Favente” – With God’s Favor (lit., God Favoring)
Lower motto: “Perennis” – Everlasting (lit., Through the years)
Once again, Congress was not impressed and a month later turned over Barton’s design – along with the other two committee designs – to Charles Thomson, whom they counted on to come up with a Great Seal worthy of their victorious new nation.
The Final Design of the Great Seal – June 20, 1782
On June 13, 1782, Congress asked Charles Thomson to come up with a suitable design for America’s Great Seal. With the reports and drawings of the three committees before him, he set to work.
Fifty-three at the time, Thomson had served the past eight years as Secretary of the Continental Congress where he acquired a reputation for fairness, truth, and integrity. Well-versed in the classics, he was once a Latin master at an academy in Philadelphia.
Although today he is not a well-known founder, Charles Thomson was at the heart of the American Revolution. His story is a fascinating one.
Thomson incorporated symbolic elements from all three committees with ideas of his own to create a bold and elegant design. He made a preliminary sketch and wrote up a description. (See his written description.)
In the eagle’s right talon is an olive branch. In its left, a tightly drawn bundle of arrows. Thomson said these symbols represent “the power of peace and war.”
In the eagle’s beak, he placed a scroll with the first committee’s motto: E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One).
For the crest above the eagle’s head, Thomson used the radiant constellation of thirteen stars suggested by the second committee. He described the light rays as “breaking through a cloud.”
For the reverse side of the Great Seal, Thomson used Barton’s (third committee) suggestion: an unfinished pyramid with the eye of Providence in its zenith, but added a triangle around the eye (like the first committee did).
He also created two new mottoes: “Novus Ordo Seclorum” (A New Order of the Ages) and “Annuit Coeptis” (Providence has Favored Our Undertakings).
After consulting with Barton, the position of the eagle was changed to “displayed” (wings spread with tips up) and the chevrons on the shield were changed to the vertical stripes we see today.
A week after starting, Thomson submitted his report to Congress, and the design for the Great Seal was approved that same day – June 20, 1782.
NOTE: Thomson did not include his sketch or any other artwork in his final report to Congress. The original Great Seal is that written description.
The first die was cut three months later, and on September 16, 1782, the Great Seal was impressed on a document for the first time. (That die was the obverse, eagle side. A die for the reverse, pyramid side has never been created.)
Novus Ordo Seclorum
The phrase is taken from the fourth Eclogue of Virgil, which contains a passage that reads:
Ultima Cumaei venit iam carminis aetas;
magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo.
iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna,
iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto.
“The last time of prophecy has come to the Cumaean Sibyl; a brand new great order of the ages is born; for now the Virgin and the age of Saturn have returned; now a new Child has been sent from the heavens.” (Latin prose would normally spell the word saeculorum, but that form is impossible in hexameter verse: the ae and o are long, the u short by position. For the medieval exchange between ae, æ and e, see Æ; medieval is another example.)
Medieval Christians read Virgil’s poem as a prophecy of the coming of Christ.
The word seclorum does not mean “secular”, as one might assume, but is the genitive (possessive) plural form of the word saeculum, meaning (in this context) generation, century, or age. Saeculum did come to mean “world, worldly” in late, Christian, Latin, and “secular” is derived from it, through secularis.
Thus the motto Novus Ordo Seclorum can be translated as “A new order of the ages.” It was proposed by Charles Thomson, the Latin expert who was involved in the design of the Great Seal of the United States, to signify “the beginning of the new American Era” as of the date of the Declaration of Independence.
In a book titled THE EAGLE AND THE SHIELD – A History of the Great Seal of the United States (1976), on Page 529: “Did Freemasonry Influence the Great Seal Design?”
“Because membership records for the Revolutionary period are scattered and imperfect, it is not possible to ascertain with certainty which persons among the 14 who participated in the designing of the Great Seal were Masons and which were not. Conrad Hahn, Executive Secretary of the Masonic Service Association of the US has furnished the following:
1. Definitely a Mason: Bro. Ben Franklin.
2. Definitely not: John Adams and Charles Thomson.
3. No firm evidence of a Masonic connection, although allegations of such a connection have been noted: Jefferson, Lovell, Hopkinson, Middleton, Rutledge. (Masonicinfo note: Based on more current research, it is now accepted that Jefferson was not a Mason!)
4. No record at all, so presumably not Masons: Du Simitiere, Scott, Houston, Lee, Boudinot, and William Barton (although he has at times been confused with another William Barton who was a Mason).
Although Washington was a Mason, he played no role in designing the Great Seal. And although Benjamin Franklin, a Mason and Past Grand Master of Pennsylvania, was a member of the first seal committee, his proposal (P14) had no influence on the final designs, and he was in France when those designs were drawn up. The only individual listed who has been said to be a Mason (with no firm evidence) is Hopkinson, whose pyramid design for the Continental currency’s $50 bill clearly influenced the final reverse of the Great Seal.
The pyramid, the eye, and the radiant triangle have often been considered to be of Masonic origin. Writers who are Masons have also seen Masonic symbolism in the eagle, in the number of feathers on the eagle’s wings, etc. It should perhaps be noted that some of the details studied and interpreted by these writers are those of comparatively recent realizations of the Great Seal, details which are not stated in the blazon itself and are not to be found in the Great Seal die of 1782.
Without questioning the fact that element of the Great Seal design are also to be found as Masonic symbols, one may question whether the designers of the seal intended it to be given a specifically Masonic interpretation. Since there is no evidence that either Thomson or Barton was a Mason, and as they were the two individuals responsible for the final design, the presumption would be that they did not intend their work to be given a Masonic interpretation.
Were there sources other than Freemasonry from which symbols such as the all-seeing eye and the unfinished pyramid could have been taken? The answer is yes. Use of the eye in art forms, including medallic art, as a symbol for an omniscient and ubiquitous Deity was a well established artistic convention quite apart from Masonic symbolism, and DuSimitiere, an artist, would have been aware of this. As to the Pyramid, there was widespread interest in Egypt in the 18th century. There was a detailed work entitled Pyramidographia which would have been available to both Hopkinson and Barton. This work included a drawing of the “First Pyramid”, which was stepped, did not come to a complete point, and had an entrance in the center on the ground level-a detail also in Hopkinson’s design.
While these points are not conclusive, it seems likely that the designers of the Great Seal and the Masons took their symbols from parallel sources, and unlikely that the seal designers consciously copied Masonic symbols with the intention of incorporating Masonic Symbolism into the national Coat of Arms.”
On page 75 are Charles Thomson’s notes on his design – A pyramid unfinished – In the Zenith an Eye in a triangle … Over the Eye these words Annuit coeptis … and underneath [the pyramid] these words Novus Ordo seclorum.” The pyramid was taken from an earlier design of William Barton (shown on page 67) that had a different motto DEO FAVENTE (God favoring) PERENNIS (through the years). This, in turn, was similar to the design of a Fifty Dollar bill designed by Francis Hopkinson. Thomson wrote the following: “The pyramid signifies Strength and Duration: The Eye over it & Motto allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favour of the American cause. The date underneath is that of the Declaration of Independce and the words under it signify the beginnings of the New American Era, which commences from that date.” P85.
P89. “The two mottoes which Thomson suggested, and Congress adapted, for the reverse … can be traced more definitely to the poetry of Virgil. Gaillard Hunt, in the Department of States first publisher on the seal in 1892, took official notice …. Annuit Coeptis, was described by Hunt as an allusion to line 625 of book IX of the Aeneid JUPPITER OMNIPOTES, AUDACIBUS ANNUE COEPTIS (All-powerful Jupiter favor [my] daring undertakings). The last three words appear also in Virgil’s GEORGICS, book I, line 40: DA FACILEM CURSUM, ATQUE AUDACIBUS ANNUE COEPTIS (Give [me] an easy course, and favor [my] daring undertakings). Thompson changed the imperative ANNUE to ANNUIT, the third person singular form of the same verb in either the present tense of the perfect tense. The the motto ANNUIT COEPTIS the subject of the verb must be supplied, and the translator must also choose the tense. In his 1892 brochure, Hunt suggested that the missing subject was in effect the eye at the apex of the pyramid … and he translated the motto-in the present tense-as “it (the Eye of Providence) is favorable to our undertakings.” In later publication the missing subject of the verb ANNUIT was construed to be God, and the motto has been translated in more recent Department publications – in the perfect tense – as “He (God) has favored our undertakings”.
P90. NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM, Hunt noted an allusion to line 5 of Virgil’s ECLOGUE IV, which read in an eighteenth-century edition : “MAGNUS AB INTEGRO SECLORUM NASITUR ORDO”. Hunt translated this line as “The great series of ages begins anew” and translated the motto as “a new order of centuries.” More recently, “a new order of the ages.”