Great Seal of the United States

From Academic Kids


The Great Seal of the United States is used to authenticate certain documents issued by the United States government. The phrase is used both for the physical seal itself (which is in the keeping of the U.S. Secretary of State), and more generally for the design represented upon it. The Great Seal was first publicly used in 1782.

Though the United States has never adopted any "national coat of arms", the image from the obverse of the great seal is often used informally as national arms, and is used on state documents such as passports in this capacity. The description below refers to colored representations of the seal as often seen; the physical Great Seal itself, as affixed to paper, is of course monochrome.




The main figure on the obverse (front) of the seal is a Bald Eagle with its wings outstretched ("displayed", in heraldic terms). From the eagle's perspective, it holds a bundle of 13 (as in the Thirteen Colonies) arrows in its left talon and an olive branch in its right talon, symbolic respectively of war and peace (see Olive Branch Petition) and a preference for peace. The eagle also has its head turned towards the olive branch, symbolizing again a preference for peace. The eagle clutches the motto "E Pluribus Unum" (Out of many, one) in its beak; over its head there appears a "glory" with thirteen stars on a blue field.

The shield the eagle bears on its breast, though sometimes drawn incorrectly, has two main differences from the American flag; it has no stars on the blue chief (though other arms based on it do; the chief of the arms of the United States Senate shows thirteen, and that sometimes used by the September 11 Commission has fifty mullets on the chief), and unlike the flag the outermost stripes are white, not red, so as not to violate the heraldic rule of "color on color". It is usually blazoned Paly of thirteen argent and gules, a chief azure. This is a technically incorrect blazon, as a shield cannot be paly (vertically striped) of an uneven number; a more proper blazon would be argent, six pallets gules... (six red stripes on a white field). But the incorrect blazon is used to preserve the reference to the thirteen original colonies.

Missing image


An unfinished pyramid appears on the reverse of the seal, inscribed on its base with the date 1776 in Roman numerals. Where the top of the pyramid should be, the so-called eye of Providence watches over it. Two mottos appear: Annuit Cœptis signifies that somebody (presumably Providence) has "nodded at (our) beginnings". Novus Ordo Seclorum, a quotation from Virgil, refers to a "new order of the ages", i.e. a paradigm shift. The reverse has never been cut (as a seal), but appears, for example, on the back of the one-dollar bill.


Since 1935, both sides of the Great Seal appear on the reverse of the One-Dollar Bill of the United States. The symbolism of the obverse is obvious—the shield is reminiscent of the national flag, and the Bald Eagle is a well-known national symbol.

That of the reverse is more murky. Many consider the eye atop the pyramid to have its origins in Masonic iconography. However, the icon is not a Masonic symbol, nor designed by a mason. Among the Great Seal committee, only Benjamin Franklin was a Mason, but his ideas were not adopted by the committee.

The all-seeing eye was a well-known classical symbol of the Renaissance. The all-seeing eye of God is mentioned several times in the Christian Bible. The eye in a triangle design originally was suggested by Pierre Eugene DuSimitiere, and later heraldist William Barton improved upon the design. In Du Simitire's original sketch, two figures stand next to a shield with the all-seeing pyramid above them. The August 20, 1776 report of the first Great Seal Committee describes the seal as "Crest The Eye of Providence in a radiant Triangle whose Glory extends over the Shield and beyond the Figures."

Another controversy centers on the pattern of the glory of stars on the obverse. Some historians believe that Haym Solomon, the financial genius and banker of the American Revolution, played a role in the seal's design. He was Jewish, and the stars appear to be arranged, roughly, in a Star of David pattern; so the suggestion has been made that they might be a mark of "recognition" for Haym Solomon's efforts. However, this theory ignores the difficulty in arranging 13 stars in a symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing design, and in the then much commoner use of 6 pointed stars. It was only towards the end of the nineteenth century that the individual stars were drawn with only five points.


Missing image
Design for the recto of the Great Seal, 1782.

On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress named a committee to design a great seal for the country. Almost six years and three committees later they still had not agreed on a design. Finally the problem was turned over to Charles Thomson, the secretary of the congress, who merged elements from all three previous attempts. Congress finally approved his integrated design on June 20, 1782, still in use today, and had it engraved into brass cylinders ("matrices") about 2.25 inches in diameter.

Missing image
Design for the verso of the Great Seal, 1782.

On September 16, 1782 Thomson used these matrices for the first time, to verify signatures on a document that authorized George Washington to negotiate an exchange of prisoners. Thomson took care of the seal until the Constitution installed a new American Government in 1789, when he passed it over to the Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. He and all following secretaries have been responsible for applying the seal to diplomatic documents.

The first matrices of the seal were replaced in 1841 when they became too worn to be effective.

Missing image
First Die of the Great Seal of the United States, 1782.

On the Great Seal as depicted in the Seal of the President of the United States, the bald eagle originally faced its left talon holding the bundle of arrows, symbolizing the "power of war". Following World War II, President Harry Truman issued an executive order on October 25, 1945 specifying that the eagle face the olive branch instead, as such symbolizing a nation "both on the march and dedicated to peace". It is said that Prime Minister Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom told Truman during a 1946 visit that he thought the eagle's head should be on a swivel.

There have been a total of seven reengravings of the seal since the original, which is now on display in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., USA.

Current Seal

The obverse side of the Great Seal is used to emboss the design on international treaties and other official US Government documents. It is stored in the Exhibit Hall of the US Department of State inside a locked glass enclosure. An officer from the State Department does the actual sealing of documents after the US Secretary of State has countersigned the President's signature. It is used 2,000 to 3,000 times a year.

See also

External links

pt:Selo do Presidente dos Estados Unidos da Amrica ko:미국 문장 sv:Great Seal of the United States zh-cn:美国国徽


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