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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Monday, July 03, 2017

”What is necessary to be done relative to a Colony Seal”

As I described yesterday, in October 1775 Gen. Thomas Gage discovered that the royal seal of Massachusetts had disappeared from the Council Chamber in what’s now the Old State House.

Naturally, we might assume that Patriots had stolen it. After all, they had stolen four cannon from militia armories under redcoat guard in September 1774 [see The Road to Concord].

The British military engineer Capt. John Montresor at some point even wrote in his diary about “General Gage having all his Cabinet papers, Ministers’ Letters, &c., and his Correspondence all stole out of a large Closet, or Wardrobe, up one pair of Stairs on the Landing at the Government House at Boston.” (But there’s no confirmation of such a theft, and Gage’s correspondence seems to be intact at the Clements Library.)

So was the seal spirited out of Boston for the Patriot government to use?

Probably not. Because that government outside Boston had already commissioned and started to use a new seal reflecting its ideology. The state Secretary of State states:
When the conflict between the province and England began in 1775, General Thomas Gage, the royal governor, had custody of the province seal. As his authority was no longer recognized by the province it became necessary to establish a new public seal.

The General Court passed an order on July 28, 1775, appointing a committee to consider ”what is necessary to be done relative to a Colony Seal.” The design adopted was that of an English-American man holding the Magna Carta. The seal was engraved by Paul Revere, whose original signed bill for the work is located in the Massachusetts Archives.

A motto in Latin was also chosen—“Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem”—which remains the motto of the Commonwealth today. Freely translated this means, “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.” It was written about 1659 and is attributed to the famous English patriot, Algernon Sydney [sic].
It’s conceivable that the royal seal was taken out to the Massachusetts Council and that body just decided not to use it. If I were writing a spy novel, I’d imagine Patriots using it to forge a commission or other credentials for an undercover agent. But my bet is that the royal seal went missing during the turbulence of the siege, and within a few months no one cared.

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