THE GREAT SEAL OF THE UNITED STATES OF America
The Great Seal of the United States has a very interesting history. Its design is filled with religious influence and I will try to explain this as much as possible. On July 4, 1776 the delegates of the Continental Congress assigned the task of creating a seal for our new country to a committee comprised of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Their first designs were not approved and it took six years for them to come up with a design that Congress was happy with. Our original Congress wanted a design that would reflect their values to future generations. To help these distinguished forefathers in their design effort the assistance of artist Pierre Eugène Du Simitière was commissioned. Du Simitière was an accomplished portrait painter and had designed the state seals for Delaware and Virginia.
These four men worked together and independently for a month and then each presented a design to Congress. Adams presented a design by Simon Gribelin entitled "Judgment of Hercules". From a note in Benjamin Franklin's own handwriting he proposed a Biblical scene. "Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity." The motto Franklin chose was "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." Thomas Jefferson's concept was an image of the children of Israel being led through the wilderness by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. For the reverse he suggested an image of the brothers Hengist and Horsa who were the leaders of the first Anglo-Saxon settlement in Britain. In three other early designs a harp of David was depicted. Most of the designs included an olive branch including the final approved design and it carries on to today's seal. The Biblical symbolism of the olive branch is of hope and peace, the number of olives and leaves were not finalized at thirteen until later committees.
The committee's final report drafted on August 20, 1776 suggested a design very similar to the drawing of Du Simitière's depicted below. From their report:
"The shield has six Quarters... pointing out the Countries from which these States have been peopled." Three British: Rose for England, Thistle for Scotland, Harp for Ireland. Three European: Fleur-de-lis for France, Imperial Eagle for Germany, Belgic Lion for Holland. (Note that on his sketch, Eagle is two-headed.) The shield is bordered with the initials for "each of the thirteen independent States of America." Supporting the shield: Right side: "The Goddess of Liberty in a corslet of armour alluding to the present Times, holding in her right hand the Spear & Cap and with her left supporting the Shield of the states." Left side: "The Goddess of Justice bearing a Sword in her right hand, and in her left a Balance." "Crest The Eye of Providence in a radiant Triangle whose Glory extends over the Shield and beyond the Figures." "Motto "E PLURIBUS UNUM."
You will notice below that Du Simitière's sketch is not an exact match to the committee's description as it was submitted to Congress. In the committee's final design the anchor (emblem of hope) was removed. On the right, the American soldier with his rifle was replaced with the goddess of justice.
Early Obverse Design from the First Committee
When Congress did not approve any of the concepts of the first design committee they formed a second committee on March 25, 1780. James Lovell was chosen as the chairman for this design project. John Morin Scott and William Churchill Houston were also chosen to participate. Francis Hopkinson who was the designer of the American flag and a signer of the Declaration of Independence was brought in to help with his artistic prowess. Hopkinson is credited with the majority of the design work done by this group. The motto "Bello vel Paci" translates as "For war or for peace." The motto "Semper" translates as "Always." and it was replaced later with "Virtute perennis," which translates as "Everlasting because of virtue."
Hopkinson's Early Great Seal Designs
In 1782 the first design was approved by Congress and passed on to Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, to prepare it for use. Thomson made a few alterations and the first official Seal of the United States was approved on June 20, 1782. Notice below that on the first approved official design (right image) of the obverse there are multiple Biblical images. The most obvious is the arrangement of the thirteen stars. They are placed in a pattern that represents a Jewish Star of David. This pattern is reputed to be a tribute to Hyman Salomon, an early American Jew, who raised over one million dollars through the Jewish community both in the Colonies and Europe to help fund the Revolutionary War. Without this money George Washington's troops would have starved and not enough weapons to fight with. This financial support of the United States from the world Jewish community was critical to the winning of the Revolutionary War. The cloud surrounding the stars is a representation of the pillar of cloud that lead the Jews out of bondage in Egypt and across the desert into the promised land. Throw in the olive branch and that is three strong Biblical images just on the obverse of our Great Seal.
Hopkinson's First Proposal to Congress Impression From the Official 1782 Die
The third Great Seal Committee was convened on May 4, 1782 with the purpose of designing the image for the reverse side of the seal. This committee was headed by Arthur Middleton with the assistance of John Rutledge and Elias Boudinot. Rutledge was soon replaced by Arthur Lee. This committee brought on William Barton to draw the designs. His first and second designs were much too complicated for a seal so he was forced to draw a third. The inspiration for this design is believed to be the Hopkinson's image from the 1778 fifty dollar bill.
Barton's 1st Reverse Design Barton's 2nd Reverse Design
Hopkinson's $50 Bill Image Barton's Final Rear Seal Image
1841 Throop Die Impression from Throop Die
The Thirteen steps of the pyramid represent the original thirteen colonies and Egypt from which the Israelites escaped.. The desert in the background represents the past and the desert through which the Israelites passed through on their journey to the Promised Land. The laurels in the foreground represent the future. The eye is the all seeing eye of God. The large number of obvious Biblical images imbedded in our Great Seal states the obvious fact that our country was founded by God fearing men who believed in Biblical principles. In the next lesson I will discuss the latter incarnations of the Great seal from its revisions in the 1800's to the present day.
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