Great Seal of the United States

Figure 6

The Great Seal of the United States

Circle with a bald eagle and the words E Pluribus Unum

This seal consists of the symbolic elements representing the origins and the Founding Fathers' ideals of the United States of America. If Lewis and Clark had carried any flags bearing this image, they could have used them as visual cues for a long story about the American nation. Even the colors are part of the message: red for hardiness and valor; white for purity and innocence; blue for vigilance, perseverance and justice.

In 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered both faces of the Great Seal placed on the reverse side of the one-dollar bill. Some years before that, the decision was made that a constellation of only 13 silver stars need appear in the crest above the eagle's head.

Although the Continental Colors carried the authority of Congressional approval, it lacked the popular appeal and utility that some other formats held. The symbol that held the deepest meaning and inspiration for Americans was the figure of George Washington, "The Father of Our Country" and Americans' "late fellow citizen" whose "unclouded brightness of . . . Glory will illuminate future ages."

Similarly inspiring were personifications of Columbia and Liberty, which the French government celebrated in 1886 with the gift they called "Liberty Enlightening the World," soon familiarly known around the globe as the Statue of Liberty. Another was "America," a woman clad in a Roman, carrying a shield decorated with an eagle, and accompanied by an American Indian. "America" was sometimes grouped with three similar figures to represent the four continents.

But the favored symbol of America was the powerful, independent and imposing bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus, or "white-headed sea-bird").1 It was not strictly an American icon, but during the Federalist Era it was the most conspicuous wild creature to be seen on the banks of the major watercourses that were the preferred travel routes between the Atlantic Coast and the Mississippi River.

Between 1776 and 1782, three successive Congressional committees worked on a design for a Great Seal of the United States. The third of the three proposals was the first to include an eagle. But it was Charles Thompson, the Secretary of Congress and the creator of the final design based on the committees' recommendations, who made the bald eagle the dominant symbol. His design was approved by the Congress of the Confederation on June 20, 1782. In Thompson's "armorial device" the eagle, together with its heraldic appurtenances, reflected "the beliefs and values that the Founding Fathers attached to the new nation and wished to pass on to their descendants."2 On the eagle's breast is an escutcheon, or shield, containing thirteen alternating red and white vertical stripes called Pieces, which represent the thirteen original states. The Pieces are bound together at their upper ends by the blue bar or Chief, which represents the Congress.

In its left talon the eagle clutches a bundle of thirteen arrows signifying strength in unity, and preparedness for war. Its right talon grasps an olive branch with 13 leaves.3 The eagle's head is turned to its right, indicating a positive desire for peace. It clenches in its beak a scroll bearing the Latin motto E pluribus unum—"From many, one." Above its head, in the 1782 version of the Seal, is a Crest consisting of the "new constellation" of thirteen silver five-pointed stars shine through a circle of dark-rimmed clouds. Through the clouds a Glory of golden sunlight shines upon the rising eagle.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service's Challenge Cost Share Program

  • 1. Guenter, p. 39. Benjamin Franklin, who was a member of the first committee, proposed that the wild turkey was more suitable as a symbol of peace.
  • 2. U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, The Great Seal of the United States, p. 7. A pdf of this 18-page history of the Seal may be downloaded free of charge from http://www.usa.gov/About/Great_Seal.shtml (retrieved 11 May 2009).
  • 3. According to the Old Testament (Genesis 8:6-12), in order to learn whether the flood had receded or not, Noah twice launched a dove from the Ark. The first time it returned, exhausted, without any sign of having found land. The second time, it brought back an olive leaf, which proved that the floodwaters had receded, and green mountain tops were again exposed. Later, the olive branch became a popular ancient Greek symbol of peace, safety and good will. In the current version of the Seal, the olive branch bears thirteen olives, obviously signifying the thirteen original colonies.