Great Seal of the United States
On the evening of June 28th 1776, after a daylong debate polishing the wording of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, Congress resolved, as stated in the Journals of Continental Congress, "that Dr. Franklin, Mr. J. Adams and Mr. Jefferson be a committee to prepare a device for a Seal of the United States of America." In addition to unsurpassed talents as a writer, scientist and statesman, Benjamin Franklin was one of America's most accomplished printers. He would assure that America's national emblem was graphically designed so that it could easily reproduced on various documents and incorporated into structures. In addition to his other geniuses, Jefferson was one of America's foremost collectors of art and an architect. He would see to it that the seal had class and taste. Pragmatic John Adams would insure the design would serve its intended purpose, characterizing not only a scenic new Republic but also her gallant freedom-seeking citizens from all parts of the globe.
Surprisingly, the committee failed. Other than contributing the motto, "E Pluribus Unum" (Out of Many, One) none of their ideas seemed fitting. Drawing from his devotion to classicism and respectful of the bible, Jefferson envisioned a crowned Pharaoh sitting in a chariot. Passing through the divided Red Sea, Pharaoh would be overwhelmed by Moses standing on the shore extending his hand over all the sea. For a motto on the seal's reverse Jefferson suggested, "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." Franklin proposed an engraving of Hercules leaning on his club, being courted by mythological figures of Virtue and Vice. Adams undoubtedly argued against both ideas. America was not a new Rome. Politically it was the antithesis. Why draw so heavily from neoclassic design? Besides, these emblems were too allegorical for a humble nation trying to purge itself from European pomposity.
The committee's second effort was to hire a professional artist. Eugene Simitiere's Great Seal proposal was a drawing of coat of arms, flanked by Lady Liberty and a buckskin attired Colonial soldier. Following the appointment of a new Committee and several different renderings, this concept was dismissed as well-with one great exception. A redesign by Philadelphia's William Barton pictured a small eagle perched above the American heraldic shield. Clutching a flag in his left talon and a sword in his right, Congress thought this bird finial with wings and legs extended was symbolic of "Supreme Power and Authority." It was the central emblem they had been seeking for five plus years.
Congress's forth commission, headed by Congressional Secretary, Charles Thomson, resulted in approval, June 20, 1782. Although the artwork as been modified slightly over the years, you visit with America's original Great Seal by opening up your wallet or purse; pulling out a dollar bill, and looking at the two circular emblems flanking "In God We Trust," and "ONE."
In his original remarks, Thomson wrote: "The pyramid signifies Strength and Duration. The eye over it and the Motto allude to the many signal interpositions of Providence in favour of the American cause. The date underneath (MDCCLXXVI) is that of the Declaration of Independence and words under it signify the beginning of a new American era, which commences from that date."
Thomson chose the Native American bald eagle for the prominent front side of his seal. An adopted kin to Lenape Indians and given the tribe name, "Man-Who-Talks-The-Truth," Thomson knew that Native Americans regarded the bald eagle as the "Great Spirit Messenger."
Thomson also wrote of the Great Seal: "The Olive branch and (13) arrows denote the power and peace of war which is exclusively vested in Congress. The Constellation (above the eagle) denotes a new state taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers. The Escutcheon (shield) is born on the breast of an American Eagle without any other supporters, to denote that the United States of America ought to rely on their own Virtue."
Artisans have recreated the eagle on the façade of the Great Seal ever since her birth. Carved onto the sterns of ships, represented on currency and stamps, incised into stoneware, inlaid within furniture and emblazoned onto every type of well-wrought object as an emblem of Freedom and Strength. For those who think that America's peace-loving founding fathers intended that she should cower under the sword of her enemies, remember the Great American Seal and Congress's careful consideration of just what it represents. The words and intentions of our forefathers still ring loud and clear today.