History of the Great Seal of the United States

The Great Seal of the United States is one of the oldest and most enduring symbols of the United States of America. Discover its long, but often overlooked, history and usage as a symbol

May 31, 2020By Robert C. L. Holmes, MA Ancient & Medieval History, BA Archaeology
Obverse (left) and reverse (right) side of the Great Seal of the United States, adopted in 1782, Wikipedia


Many symbols have been used to represent the United States of America over the course of its nearly 250 year long history. None, however, have enjoyed the level of use and popularity equal to that of the Great Seal of the United States. Though rarely depicted in its entirety, the Great Seal of the United States has become so ubiquitous in that country, that few recognize it or are aware of its name.  Yet it is nearly as old as the nation it symbolically represents, dating back to the time that country declared its independence.


Origins of the Great Seal of the United States

First design for the Great Seal of the United States
First design for the Great Seal of the United States by Pierre Eugene du Simitiere after First Committee Specifications, 1776, Library of Congress


The Great Seal of the United States can trace its history back to July 4, 1776 when the Continental Congress placed Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson in charge of designing an emblem or national coat of arms for their new nation. What they were tasked with designing was what is today known as the Great Seal of the United States. Great Seals originated in the Middle Ages and were used to conduct official state business, as opposed to privy seals which were used for the sovereign’s private business. While the United States has a Great Seal, it does not have any officially recognized “lesser” seals.  In a monarchy the Great Seal usually changes to reflect the coat of arms of each successive monarch. The Great Seal of a Republic however, usually remains the same as its coat of arms represents the nation. Since they were attached to all official documents they had two sides; the obverse and the reverse sides. 


Although Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson contributed a number of elements found in the Great Seal of the United States their design was tabled for lack of support. The next attempt at a design in 1777 was also rejected as was that of the third committee given this task in May of 1782. Ultimately the Continental Congress assigned the task of designing the Great Seal to Charles Thomson on June 13 1782. Thomson, the Secretary of Congress, looked over the previous designs and selected the elements which he felt were the most appropriate.


The Great Seal of the United Sates is Born

first design great seal charles thomson
Charles Thomson’s first design for the Great Seal (obverse), Charles Thomson, 1782, National Archives Museum 


Charles Thomson created a design which incorporated what he believed to be the best elements of the previous designs. From the first committee of Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson he took four elements: the eye of providence, the date of independence (MDCCLXXVI), the shield, and the Latin motto E Pluribus Unum or “Out of Many One.” The second committee of James Lovell, John Morin Scott, William Churchill Houston, and Francis Hopkinson provided three elements: the 13 red and white stripes, the 13 star constellation, and the olive branch. Finally the third committee of John Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, Elias Boudinot, and William Barton provided two elements: the eagle and the unfinished pyramid with 13 steps which they combined with the eye of providence.

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Charles Thomson replaced Barton’s eagle with the native Bald Eagle, feeling that it needed to be something strictly American. He also changed the eagle’s wings to point down as if in flight and placed a bundle of arrows in its left talon and an olive branch in its right talon. Next he affixed a shield to the eagle’s breast with alternating chevrons of red and white. The eagle clenched a scroll in it beak which carried the motto and had a constellation of 13 stars placed over its head. On the reverse side Thomson retained the eye and pyramid but added the Latin mottoes Annuit Coeptis (He [God] has favored or undertaking) and Novus Ordo Seclorum (A new order of the ages). Thomson’s design was turned over to William Barton who simplified the shield so that it consisted of 13 vertical red and stripes below a single chief rectangular blue stripe. He also raised the tips of the eagle’s wings. This design was brought before the Continental Congress and was approved on June 20, 1782; and thus the Great Seal of the United States, was born.


Symbolism in the Great Seal

charles thomson secretary
Charles Thomson esqr-secretary to Congress, Pierre Eugene Du Simitiere, 1783, Library of Congress


The Great Seal of the United States symbolically reflects the values which its creators wished to pass on to the descendants of their new nation. Along with his design, Charles Thomson also submitted an explanation of the Great Seal’s symbolism to Congress. On the obverse side the 13 vertical stripes represented the states and the horizontal stripe which unites them, their chief the Congress. The white stripes represent purity and innocence, the red hardiness and valor, and the blue vigilance, perseverance and justice.  That the shield is placed on the breast of the eagle with no supporters is meant to encourage the people of the United States to rely on their own virtue.  In the eagle’s talons are arrows and an olive branch representing the powers of peace and war. Above the eagle’s head is a constellation of stars which represented a new nation taking its place among other sovereign states. The Latin motto E Pluribus Unum or “Out of Many One,” was meant to reflect the new union of the 13 states.


On the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States, the symbolism is of a more spiritual nature. The pyramid is meant to symbolize strength and duration, while the eye of providence and the Latin motto Annuit Coeptis (He [God] has favored or undertaking) represent the many interventions of divine providence in favor of the American cause. Beneath the pyramid the date of the Declaration of Independence (MDCCLXXVI), and the Latin motto Novus Ordo Seclorum (A new order of the ages), are meant to signal the inauguration of the new American era. On both sides of the seal the number 13 represents the original states. 


The Die is Cut: Affixing the Federal Eagle

first die great seal united states
First die of the Great Seal of the United States, possibly Robert Scott, 1782, National Archives Museum


The seal was meant to be affixed to official documents through a process called stamping, which involved a specialized tool called a die. A die is a simple tool usually customized for the item it is intended to create. Dies are usually pieces of metal or some other material that have an image engraved or carved on one side. They are then placed on a blank piece of material so that the image is faces down where image is to be stamped onto the material through the application of force. This process may be carried out by hand or through the use of a variety of machines called stamping presses.


The first die with the Great Seal was cut in 1782 in Philadelphia possibly by the engraver Robert Scot; it is roughly 2 ½ inches in diameter and now resides at the National Archives in Washington DC where it is on public display.  As the original die wore out new dies were cut; by John Peter Van Ness Throop in 1841, Herman Baumgarten in 1877, James Horton Whitehouse in 1885, and Max Zeitler in 1904. A master die was cut based on the Zeitler design in 1986, which will be used to cut all future dies.  


Claiming its Own: Federal Use of the Great Seal

US one dollar bill great seal
US $1 Bill reverse side, US Department of Treasury, 2009, wikipedia 


Although the Great Seal of the United States was originally created to seal documents,— it is still affixed to between 2,000-3,000 a year—it has been put to many other uses by the Federal Government of the United States. Early in its existence the new Federal Government of the United States needed a way to mark its property in order to prevent theft, resale of its goods, and to assert its authority. Usually this was accomplished by marking the items with the Federal Eagle or National Coat of Arms from the obverse of the Great Seal of the United States. Occasionally the eagle was accompanied by a “US” surcharge to ensure that there was no confusion. However, both the obverse and the reverse have appeared separately or together on coins, postage stamps, stationary, publications, flags, military uniforms and equipment, public buildings, public monuments, passports, and of course most famously it appears on the $1 dollar bill.  


Of Many, One: The Great Seal and its Competitors

columbia goddess of liberty statue
Goddess of Liberty Figure, ca.1850-1880 The National Museum of American History 


When the Great Seal of the United States was officially adopted in 1782 it was one of many symbols used to represent the new nation. One of the most popular symbols was George Washington, commander of the Continental Army and first President of the United States. Other early symbols were personifications like Columbia a goddess like figure used to represent the virtues of the United States. The name is a Latinized form of Christopher Columbus’s last name and translates as “Land of Columbus.” Columbia first appeared in 1738 and remained popular until the early 20th century. Another popular personification was Brother Jonathan, the American counterpoint to England’s John Bull. The name Brother Jonathan was coined by George Washington during the early days of the Revolutionary War. Brother Jonathan was a young man in his prime, who remained popular until the Civil War, after which he was superseded by Uncle Sam. 


Other popular symbols included the liberty cap, a soft conical cap with the apex bent over. Known since antiquity as the Phrygian cap it was associated with the manumission of slaves and therefore the pursuit of liberty. The liberty cap appeared on its own and as something worn by personifications of the United States. It also appeared in conjunction with another symbol the liberty pole, which also dates back to antiquity when Roman senators seeking to restore the republic placed a Phrygian cap on pole after assassinating Julius Caesar. The number 13 was also an important symbol as it represented the original 13 states so that many depictions of the personifications of other symbols included some reference to this number.     


The New Market

tobacco jar great seal
Delft Tobacco Jar, Holland, ca.1800, Aronson Antiques


By the 1790’s a new market had emerged in the United States as the nation began to prosper and people accumulated wealth. This created a demand for luxury goods which could not be produced in the United States. The Dutch Republic, France, China, and even Britain began to market their wares specifically for American buyers.  In order to more effectively appeal to American tastes and sensibilities, manufactures in these countries decorated their wares with symbols and images associated with American patriotism. 


One of the most popular symbols used to adorn these goods was the National Coat of Arms, or Federal Eagle, taken almost directly from the obverse of the Great Seal of the United States. All manner of Dutch, French, Chinese, and British goods were adorned with the Federal Eagle; especially ceramics intended for American markets. 


The Great Seal in Art & Architecture

painters sign federal eagle
Coach Painter’s Sign depicting Federal Eagle, J. Mason, 1800-1810, Met Museum 


Although usage of the Great Seal of the United States is today strictly controlled that was not always the case. However, the popular appeal of the seal as a whole has never been particularly great; though the same cannot be said of National Coat of Arms, or Federal Eagle, from the obverse of the seal. Following the Revolutionary War the popularity of the eagle and the National Coat of arms exploded. It was used to adorn all manner of domestic goods, such as furniture, textiles, ceramics, and metal work. It’s popularity was in large part due to its transitional ability: it was equally at home on butter molds in the kitchen and the very best furniture in the parlor. The National Coat of Arms, or Federal Eagle, was a symbol which could and was featured in both high and low forms of art.


In large part due to its wide popularity and mass appeal the National Coat of Arms, or Federal Eagle, has long been incorporated into decorative architectural elements. As such the eagle has featured as a decorative architectural element on all manner of public buildings from the Federal level down to local municipalities. It has also been a particularly popular feature on public monuments and has been used to commemorate important events, individuals, and groups; especially those associated with the nation as a whole or the Federal Government.  

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By Robert C. L. HolmesMA Ancient & Medieval History, BA ArchaeologyRobert Holmes has an MA in Ancient & Medieval History and a BA in Archaeology. He is an independent historian and author, who specializes in the Military History of the Ancient and Medieval World and has published over a dozen articles on related topics. Originally from Massachusetts, he now lives in Florida where he works doing public history leading tours, giving lectures, and educating people about the local history.