J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, November 22, 2018

A Turkey of a Great Seal

In the musical 1776, the characters of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson debate which bird would be the best symbol for the new United States: turkey, eagle, or dove.

I saw the movie version of that show during the Bicentennial. My class even performed that scene’s song, “The Egg,” as a chorus. But now I know it was all bunk.

The Continental Congress did assign those three members to design an official seal for the new union on 4 July 1776, the same day it sent a certain Declaration they had drafted to the printer. However, those guys didn’t come up with any ideas involving birds.

As Adams explained the process in a 14 August letter to Abigail, the three politicians consulted with the Swiss artist Pierre Eugène du Simitière on the seal design. That put Du Simitière in the role of the professional graphic designer trying to please three clients who all fancy their own ideas, haven’t decided priorities among themselves, and have to go back to their bosses for final approval anyway.

Every man had a different concept, Adams wrote. Du Simitière:
For the Seal he proposes. The Arms of the several Nations from whence America has been peopled, as English, Scotch, Irish, Dutch, German &c. each in a Shield. On one side of them Liberty, with her Pileus, on the other a Rifler, in his Uniform, with his Rifled Gun in one Hand, and his Tomahauk, in the other. This Dress and these Troops with this Kind of Armour, being peculiar to America…
Franklin:
Moses lifting up his Wand, and dividing the Red Sea, and Pharaoh, in his Chariot overwhelmed with the Waters.—This Motto. Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.
Jefferson:
The Children of Israel in the Wilderness, led by a Cloud by day, and a Pillar of Fire by night, and on the other Side Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon Chiefs, from whom We claim the Honour of being descended and whose Political Principles and Form of Government We have assumed.
Adams:
I proposed the Choice of Hercules, as engraved by Gribeline in some Editions of Lord Shaftsburys Works. The Hero resting on his Clubb. Virtue pointing to her rugged Mountain, on one Hand, and perswading him to ascend. Sloth, glancing at her flowery Paths of Pleasure, wantonly reclining on the Ground, displaying the Charms both of her Eloquence and Person, to seduce him into Vice.
That meant Simon Gribelin’s engraving of “Hercules at the Crossroad,” shown above, based on a painting by Paolo de Matteis. Adams had the self-awareness to add, “But this is too complicated a Group for a Seal or Medal, and it is not original.”

TOMORROW: The result of that committee process.

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