The Great Seal: Celebrating 233 Years of a National Emblem

Today’s post comes from Meagan T. Frenzer, graduate research intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC.

On June 20, 1782, the Confederation Congress approved and finalized the first Great Seal of the United States.

The First Continental Congress in 1776 originally commissioned Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams to create a national seal. As members of the First Great Seal Committee, these Founding Fathers intended to design a national emblem that reflected the independence and aspirations of the new nation.

This was no easy task. It took more than three committees and six years of congressional debate to complete the Great Seal.

It was Secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thomson, who submitted the final design for the Great Seal 233 years ago. Thomson’s design combined elements of submissions presented to the prior committees. His uncluttered, symbolic design fulfilled Congress’s expectations.

The face side of Thomson’s seal, also known as the “obverse” side, displays a bald eagle with wings spread. The eagle clutches a bundle of 13 arrows (representing the 13 colonies) in its left talon and an olive branch in its right talon. Together, the items in the eagle’s talons stand for war and peace.

Charles Thompson's First Design, 1782. (National Archives Identifier 595257)
Charles Thompson’s first design for the Great Seal (obverse side), 1782. (National Archives Identifier 595257)

The eagle’s beak holds a banner that reads E pluribus unum. The Latin phrase roughly translates as “Out of many, one,” describing the formation of a single nation from 13 colonies.

On the eagle’s breast is a shield with 13 red and white stripes below a blue chief, or the upper region of the shield. The red and white chevrons stand for valor and purity, while the blue represents vigilance, perseverance, and justice.

A cloud floats above the eagle’s head and surrounds 13 stars forming a constellation. The formation of this constellation alludes again to the formation of the new nation.

The “reverse,” or back side, of the Great Seal contains a 13-step pyramid representing strength, while the Eye of Providence sits above the pyramid within a triangle. The year 1776 in Roman numerals rests at the base of the pyramid.

Inscribed above the Eye is the Latin motto, Annuit Coeptis, meaning “He [God] has favored our undertakings.” The inscription characterizes the favorable circumstances that bolstered the American cause for independence.

The scroll below the pyramid reads, Novus Ordo Seclorum, which is Latin for “A New Order of the Ages.” This phrase represents the beginnings of a new era for the United States.

The National Archives holds the first design of Thomson’s “observe” side, which features red and white chevrons as opposed to the vertical stripes used in the final design.

Additionally, the National Archives holds seal designs by Francis Hopkinson, signer of the Declaration of Independence and designer of the American flag.

Francis Hopkinson’s First Observe Design, 1780. (National Archives Identifier 595254)
Francis Hopkinson’s first obverse design for the Great Seal, 1780. (National Archives Identifier 595254)

As a participant of the Second Great Seal Committee, Hopkinson’s work inspired the addition of the 13 stripes on the shield, 13 stars, and an olive branch in Thomson’s final designs.

The first engraved metal die of the Great Seal, based on Thomson’s design, was used from September 1782 to 1841. The National Archives holds the first die, along with other seal dies used from 1841 to 1909. Thomson had designed the reverse in case Congress wanted to impress the back surfaces of wax pendant seals but a die for the reverse was never cut.

Two hundred and thirty-three years later, the Great Seal of the United States still reflects the traits and principles that the government aims to uphold.

First Die of the Great Seal of the United States, 1782. (National Archives Identifier 596742)
First die of the Great Seal of the United States, 1782. (National Archives Identifier 596742)

4 thoughts on “The Great Seal: Celebrating 233 Years of a National Emblem

  1. So, the National Archives, who used to incorporate the seal of the United States, dumped all the history and created our new Chicken Wing design. Perhaps we no longer want to show our heritage?

  2. What “Chicken Wing” design? The first design submitted is appropriate for a “Pieces of History” blog. Dumped what history? Reasoning and the final design (first die) are given.

  3. I agree with the comment regarding the “Chicken Wing.” After our fore fathers gave their lives and their sacred honor to fight for liberty, those who came after did not have to shed blood to obtain the blessings of liberty. The Chicken Wing is an example of the soft progeny who do not realize the need to defend liberty with life and honor. But our original founders knew that liberty is not won without bloodshed, battle and honor. Peace is maintained by the willingness to fight, in a war if necessary. Hence, the original seal had the image of moses parting the Red Sea, Pharoah’s soldiers being killed, and the stirring phrase: Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.

  4. I don’t know if the end of your reply is true regarding Moses parting the red sea. Maybe I’m not looking at the same image.( I need to research), but everything else FOR SURE IS RIGHT ON!!!

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