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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Friday, November 23, 2018

“The great Seal should on one side have…”

As discussed yesterday, in the summer of 1776 a committee of Continental Congress heavyweights—Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson—asked the Swiss-born artist and historical collector Pierre Eugène du Simitière to design a seal for the new United States of America.

Of course, each of those gentlemen also gave the artist a helpful, and contradictory, suggestion of what the seal should look like. And Du Simitière had his own ideas.

Jefferson reported the result of that committee discussion to the Congress on 20 August:
The great Seal should on one side have the arms of the United States of America which arms should be as follows. The Shield has six Quarters, parti one, coupe two. The 1st. Or, a Rose enammelled gules and argent for England: the 2d Argent, a Thistle proper, for Scotland: the 3d. Verd, a Harp Or, for Ireland: the 4th. Azure a Flower de Luce Or for France: the 5th. Or the Imperial Eagle Sable for Germany: and the 6th. Or the Belgic Lion Gules for Holland, pointing out the Countries from which the States have been peopled.

The Shield within a Border Gules entwind of thirteen Scutcheons Argent linked together by a Chain Or, each charged with initial Letters Sable as follows: 1st. NH. 2d M.B. 3d RI. 4th C. 5th NY. 6th NJ. 7th P. 8th DC. 9 M. 10th V. 11th NC. 12th. SC. 13 G. for each of the thirteen independent States of America.

Supporters, dexter the Goddess Liberty in a corselet of Armour alluding to the present Times [i.e., the ongoing war], holding in her right Hand the Spear and Cap and with her left supporting the Shield of the States; sinister, the Goddess 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.

Legend round the whole Atchievement. Seal of the United States of America mdcclxxvi.

On the other side of the said Great Seal should be the following Device. Pharoah sitting in an open Chariot a Crown on his head and a Sword in his hand passing through the divided Waters of the Red Sea in Pursuit of the Israelites: Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Cloud, expressive of the divine Presence and Comman[d] beaming on Moses who stands on the Shore and extending his hand over the Sea causes it to overwhe[lm] Pharoah.

Motto Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.
The shields showing the countries where most European-Americans had come from was Du Simitière’s idea. He was, after all, an immigrant—though not from any of the nations represented. Du Simitière had originally pictured an American rifleman standing opposite Liberty, but Justice made a better pairing.

The Biblical scene on the reverse side was Franklin’s suggestion, with the addition of the “Pillar of Fire” from Jefferson. The motto “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God” also came from Franklin, though it had an older history (which I’ll discuss at some point). Jefferson liked that saying so much he added it to a seal for Virginia that he commissioned from Du Simitière in this same summer. None of Adams’s ideas made it to the final proposal.

The committee presented this proposal to the Congress. With the British army about to attack New York City, the delegates tabled that symbolic matter till later. And they didn’t return to the question of a national seal until four years later, when Franklin and Adams were in Europe and Jefferson was in Virginia. And then the Congress tossed out their 1776 report and started over.

The U.S. of A. had to get along without a seal for another couple of years as more committees discussed the question. Finally in 1782 the Congress’s secretary, Charles Thomson, got sick of waiting and drew one himself. Only two elements from the 1776 proposals survived to the final seal: the “Eye of Providence in a radiant Triangle” and the motto “E pluribus unum.” There’s no positive evidence about who came up with either.

Thomson adopted the latest committee’s suggestion of a heraldic eagle but chose the bald or “American Eagle” because that species was American, he later explained to James Madison. The idea of an eagle definitely didn’t come from John Adams, whatever the 1776 musical depicts.

TOMORROW: And how did the turkey and the dove come in?

[The picture above shows a nineteenth-century recreation of the seal that Du Simitière described, courtesy of Mental Floss; no drawings from 1776 survive.]

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