It Only Took the United States 6 Years to Create The Great Seal

It was 135 years ago, six years after the forefathers of the U.S. signed the declaration of independence, that the emergent nation finally had an official seal. We call it The Great Seal of the United States.

It took four committees and ton of debate to arrive a symbol for something most Americans recognize, but few realize the importance of The Great Seal

It is the image found on the one dollar bill; the one of the eagle holding arrows and an olive branch. The other half of The Great Seal, if you will, is the image of the pyramid on the left side of the bill.

If Benjamin Franklin had his way it would have been wrought with religious imagery, Moses, and the Red Sea. He was on the first committee to design the seal, of which there were four total committees in the end.

The final design for the seal had to capture everything that the United States was and everything it would hope to be in a piece of heraldry that would look as sharp on a stamp as it did on a mural.

First Committee

The day the Continental Congress met, July 4, 1776, they appointed three founders to sort out the business of a national seal.

The journals from that day read:

“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.”

The three men mentioned were no doubt men of honor, courage, and pedigree, but not one of them was versed in heraldry, the art of creating official crests.

The first thing the three men did was to contract the services of an artist by the name of Pierre Eugène Du Simitière. He had experience in heraldry. In fact, the state seals for Delaware and New Jersey were his handiwork.

The three founders proposed three very different designs, all classic scenes of legends. Franklin’s design was of Moses standing on the shores of the Red Sea. Jefferson wanted to feature the children of Israel. Adams saw a seal with Hercules as the prominent figure.

All three designs did not pass muster with the Congress, but there was a fourth submission from Du Simitière featuring a crest, bookended by Liberty and a soldier. Above the crest, he placed the Eye of Providence and at the bottom a motto which read: E Pluribus Unum, From Many, One or as some translate it, Out of Many, One.

On August 20, 1776, Congress tabled the designs as they did not wish to approve any of the first committee’s designs.

Second Committee

The first swing of the bat must have left a bad taste in the mouth of the Continental Congress. They didn’t revisit the issue for four years, until March 25, 1780.

For the second committee, they appointed three new members: James Lovell (Massachusetts) as the chairman with John Morin Scott (New York) and William Churchill Houston (New Jersey) as the other two members.

Francis Hopkinson, a man of prominence in Philadelphia who’d signed the Declaration of Independence and designed the 1777 American flag, also joined the team.

That team submitted to Congress two images depicted by Hopkins, the front, and back of the seal. The front, the main seal, was of a crest with thirteen stripes for each of the original colonies.

On the top was a constellation of thirteen stars too. Flanking the crest were two figures, a Native American warrior, and Liberty. The quiver of arrows and the olive branch made it into his design as well.

The motto below the crest read “Bello vel Paci, For war or for peace. Hopkinson’s first design featured the motto “Bello vel Pace Paratus,” which meant Prepared in War or in Peace.

Congress did not consider the design suitable so they did not approve it.

Third Committee

By May 4, 1782, the United States was starting to look sloppy without a national seal. There were peace talks underway in Paris, an effort to put the revolution in the past.

To properly ratify a peace between the U.S. and Britain, the U.S. needed a seal. Once again, Congress assembled a committee and once again they declined the submission.

The third committee was Arthur Middleton and John Rutledge (both of South Carolina) with Elias Boudinot (New Jersey). From what we can tell, it seems Arthur Lee (Virginia) replaced Rutledge early in the process.

That team would work with a consultant as wells, but this one was William Burton. With a background in heraldry, Burton made what seemed like the perfect compliment to the committee.

Burton’s first design was too complex. He submitted a second design May 9, which featured a dove on the top, (reminiscent of the eagle on the final seal). Burton’s design also featured a crest like the previous committee’s designs, with two figures on either side.

His design featured two mottos: “In Vindiciam Libertatis,” In Defense of Liberty and “Virtus sola Invicta,” Only Virtue Unconquered.

Congress, again, gave it the thumbs down.

Final Committee

That’s Thomson standing on the right. |

When the Continental Congress handed over the stack of designs from the first three committees to Charles Thompson, he had to consider declining the job, if not for a moment. Isn’t the saying, three times the charm? Who wants to be number four?

Thompson was one of the most underrated founding fathers of the United States. He’d served eight years as the secretary to the Congress. His record keeping was precise, exhausting.

His peers regarded him as a fair man, who spoke the truth and embodied integrity. Thomson was also a master of Latin and Greek, and an early opponent of slavery.

He once wrote to Jefferson saying:

“It grieves me to the soul that there should be such just grounds for your apprehensions respecting the irritation that will be produced in the Southern States by what you have said of slavery. However, I would not have you discouraged. This is a cancer we must get rid of. It is a blot on our character that must be wiped out. If it cannot be done by religion, reason, and philosophy, confident I am that it will be one day by blood.”

It seems only fitting that a man with such a clarity about the future would be the one to submit the final design for the Great Seal.

In the end, as all great leaders do, Thomson collaborated with others to nail the final design. He pulled in William Burton to make the eagle perfect and used parts from every committee’s submissions in some form.

On June 20, 1782, Congress approved Thomson’s design the same day he submitted it. His design included the pyramid featured on the other half of the dollar bill, another design which pulled in the best parts of previous designs.