The Americas - Complete Book of Heraldry - Stephen Slater

Wikipedia: Speculation and conspiracy theory

1525 Jacopo Pontormo painting containing the Eye of Providence in a triangle

Some conspiracy theories state that the Great Seal shows a sinister influence by Freemasonry in the founding of the United States. Such theories usually claim that the Eye of Providence (found, in the Seal, above the pyramid) is a common Masonic emblem, and that the Great Seal was created by Freemasons.[43] These claims, however, misstate the facts.

While the Eye of Providence is today a common Masonic motif, this was not the case during the 1770s and 1780s (the decades when the Great Seal was being designed and approved). According to David Barrett, a Masonic researcher, the Eye seems to have been used only sporadically by the Masons in those decades, and was not adopted as a common Masonic symbol until 1797, several years after the Great Seal of the United States had already been designed.[44] The Eye of Providence was, on the other hand, a fairly common Christian motif throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and was commonly used as such in Europe as well as America throughout the 18th century.[20][45]

Furthermore, contrary to the claims of these conspiracy theories, the Great Seal was not created by Freemasons.[46] While Benjamin Franklin was a Mason, he was the only member of any of the various Great Seal committees definitively known to be so, and his ideas were not adopted.[47] Of the four men whose ideas were adopted, neither Charles Thomson, Pierre Du Simitière nor William Barton were Masons and, while Francis Hopkinson has been alleged to have had Masonic connections, there is no firm evidence to support the claim.[48][49]

On July 4, 1776, the same day that independence from Great Britain was declared by the thirteen states, the Continental Congress named the first committee to design a Great Seal, or national emblem, for the country. Similar to other nations, The United States needed an official symbol of sovereignty to formalize and seal (or sign) international treaties and transactions. It took six years, three committees, and the contributions of fourteen men before the Congress finally accepted a design (which included elements proposed by each of the three committees) in 1782.[8]

First committee

Interpretation of the first committee’s seal proposal, made by Benson Lossing in 1856. The obverse drawing is slightly incorrect; the linked state initials should be on the shield itself.

The first committee consisted of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. While they were three of the five primary authors of the Declaration of Independence, they had little experience in heraldry and sought the help of Pierre Eugene du Simitiere, an artist living in Philadelphia who would later also design the state seals of Delaware and New Jersey and start a museum of the Revolutionary War. Each of these men proposed a design for the seal.

Franklin chose an allegorical scene from Exodus, described in his notes as „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.” Motto, „Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” Jefferson suggested a depiction of the Children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night for the front of the seal; and Hengest and Horsa, the two brothers who were the legendary leaders of the first Anglo-Saxon settlers in Britain, for the reverse side of the seal. Adams chose a painting known as the „Judgment of Hercules” where the young Hercules must choose to travel either on the flowery path of self-indulgence or the rugged, more difficult, uphill path of duty to others and honor to himself.[13]

du Simitiere’s initial sketch, and Franklin’s earlier design on a 1776 currency note

In August, Du Simitière showed his design, which was more along conventional heraldic lines. The shield had six sections, each representing „the Countries from which these States have been peopled” (England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, and Holland), surrounded by the initials of all thirteen states. The supporters were a female figure representing Liberty holding an anchor of hope and a spear with a cap, and on the other side an American soldier holding a rifle and tomahawk. The crest was the „The Eye of Providence in a radiant Triangle whose Glory extends over the Shield and beyond the Figures”, and the motto E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One) in a scroll at the bottom.[14]

On August 20, 1776 the committee presented their report to Congress. The committee members chose Du Simitière’s design, though it was changed to remove the anchor of hope and replace the soldier with Lady Justice holding a sword and a balance. Surrounding the main elements was the inscription „Seal of the United States of America MDCCLXXVI”. For the reverse, Franklin’s design of Moses parting the Red Sea was used. Congress was however not impressed, and on the same day ordered the report to „lie on the table„, ending the work of the committee.[15]

1737 Gentleman’s Magazine title page

While the designs in their entirety were not used, the E Pluribus Unum motto was chosen for the final seal, and the roman-numeral 1776 and Eye of Providence is used on the reverse. Jefferson also liked Franklin’s motto so much, he ended up using it on his personal seal.[13]

The motto was almost certainly taken from the title page of Gentleman’s Magazine, a monthly magazine published in London which had used it from its first edition in 1731, and was well known in the colonies.[8] The motto alluded to the magazine being a collection of articles obtained from other newspapers, and was used in most of its editions until 1833. The motto was taken in turn from Gentleman’s Journal, a similar magazine which ran briefly from 1692 to 1694. While variants turn up in other places (for example a poem often ascribed to Virgil called Moretum contains the phrase E Pluribus Unus), this is the oldest known use of the exact phrase.[16][17] Another source was some of the Continental currency issued earlier in 1776; these were designed by Franklin and featured the motto We Are One surrounded by thirteen rings, each with the name of a colony.[18][19] This design is echoed in the seal submitted by the first committee, and the motto was quite possibly a Latin version of this concept.[17]

The Eye of Providence had been a well-known classical symbol of the deity since at least the Renaissance, which Du Simitiere was familiar with.[20][21]

Second committee

Second committee’s seal proposal, drawn by Francis Hopkinson

For three and a half years no further action was taken, during which time the Continental Congress was forced out of Philadelphia before returning in 1778. On March 25, 1780 a second committee to design a great seal was formed, which consisted of James Lovell, John Morin Scott, and William Churchill Houston. Like the first committee, they sought the help of someone more experienced in heraldry, this time Francis Hopkinson, who did most of the work.[22]

Hopkinson was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, helped design the American flag, and also helped design state and other government seals. He made two similar proposals, each having an obverse and reverse side, with themes of war and peace.[14]

Hopkinson’s first design had a shield with thirteen diagonal red and white stripes, supported on one side by figure bearing an olive branch and representing peace, and on the other an Indian warrior holding a bow and arrow, and holding a shiver. The crest was a radiant constellation of thirteen stars. The motto was „Bello vel pace paratus”, meaning „prepared in war or in peace”. The reverse, in Hopkinson’s words, was „Liberty is seated in a chair holding an olive branch and her staff is topped by a Liberty cap. The motto `Virtute perennis’ means `Everlasting because of virtue.’ The date in Roman numerals is 1776.”[14][22]

Hopkinson’s first proposal

In his second proposal, the Indian warrior was replaced by a soldier holding a sword, and the motto was shortened to „Bello vel paci”, meaning „For war or for peace”.[22]

The committee chose the second version, and reported back to Congress on May 10, 1780, six weeks after being formed. Their final blazon, printed in Congress journals on May 17, was: „The Shield charged on the Field Azure with 13 diagonal stripes alternate rouge and argent. Supporters; dexter, a Warriour holding a Sword; sinister, a Figure representing Peace bearing an Olive Branch. The Crest; a radiant Constellation of 13 Stars. The motto, Bella vel Paci.”[14] Once again, Congress did not find the result acceptable.[8] They referred the matter back to the committee, which did no further work on the matter.[14]

As with the first design, several elements were eventually used in the final seal; the thirteen stripes on the shield with their colors, the constellation of stars surrounded by clouds, the olive branch, and the arrows (from Hopkinson’s first proposal).[8] Hopkinson had previously used the constellation and clouds on a $40 Continental currency note he designed in 1778. The same note also used an Eye of Providence, taken from the first committee’s design.[19]

Third committee

Third committee’s proposal, drawn by William Barton

After two more years, Congress formed a third committee on May 4, 1782, this time consisting of John Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, and Elias Boudinot. Arthur Lee replaced Rutledge, although he was not officially appointed. As with the previous two committees, most of the work was delegated to a heraldic expert, this time 28-year-old William Barton.[8][23]

Barton drew a design very quickly, using a rooster on the crest, but it was much too complex. No drawing of this design seems to have survived.[14][23]

Hopkinson’s pyramid from 1778

Barton then came up with another design, which the committee submitted back to Congress on May 9, 1782, just five days after being formed. This time, the figures on each side of the shield were the „Genius of the American Confederated Republic” represented by a maiden, and on the other side an American warrior. At the top is an eagle and on the pillar in the shield is a „Phoenix in Flames”. The mottos were „In Vindiciam Libertatis” (In Defense of Liberty) and „Virtus sola invicta” (Only virtue unconquered).[23]

For the reverse, Barton used a pyramid of thirteen steps, with the radiant Eye of Providence overhead, and used the mottos „Deo Favente” (With God’s Favor, or more literally, God Favoring) and „Perennis” (Everlasting).[23] The pyramid had come from another Continental currency note designed in 1778 by Hopkinson, this time the $50 note, which had a nearly identical pyramid and the motto „Perennis”.[23] Barton had at first specified „on the Summit of it a Palm Tree, proper”, with the explanation that „The Palm Tree, when burnt down to the very Root, naturally rises fairer than ever”, but later crossed it out and replaced it with the Eye of Providence, taken from the first committee’s design.[24]

Congress again took no action on the submitted design.

Final design

Thomson’s report to Congress, which was accepted and is still the law today.

On June 13, 1782, the Congress turned to its Secretary Charles Thomson, and provided all material submitted by the first three committees.[8] Thomson was 53 years old, and had been a Latin master at a Philadelphia academy.[25] Thomson took elements from all three previous committees, coming up with a new design which provided the basis for the final seal.[8]

Thomson used the eagle – this time specifying an American bald eagle – as the sole supporter on the shield. The shield had thirteen stripes, this time in a chevron pattern, and the eagle’s claws held an olive branch and a bundle of thirteen arrows. For the crest, he used Hopkinson’s constellation of thirteen stars. The motto was E Pluribus Unum, taken from the first committee, and was on a scroll held in the eagle’s beak.[8][25]

An eagle holding symbols of war and peace has a long history, and also echoed the second committee’s themes. Franklin owned a 1702 emblem book, which included an eagle with olive branch and arrows near its talons, which may have been a source for Thomson.[16] The arrows also mirror those in the arms of the Dutch Republic, the only country in Europe with a representative government at the time, which depicted a lion holding seven arrows representing their seven provinces.[15][16] State currency may have provided further inspiration; a 1775 South Carolina bill showed a bundle of 13 arrows and a 1775 Maryland note depicted a hand with an olive branch of 13 leaves.[26]

Thomson’s drawing, the basis for the final seal

For the reverse, Thomson essentially kept Barton’s design, but re-added the triangle around the Eye of Providence and changed the mottos to Annuit Cœptis and Novus Ordo Seclorum.[25] Thomson sent his designs back to Barton, who made some final alterations. The stripes on the shield were changed again, this time to „palewise” (vertical), and the eagle’s wing position was changed to „displayed” (wingtips up) instead of „rising”. Barton also wrote a more properly heraldic blazon.[8]

The design was submitted to Congress on June 20, 1782 and was accepted the same day. Thomson included a page of explanatory notes, but no drawing was submitted. This remains the official definition of the Great Seal today.[8]

First sealed document

The first brass die was cut sometime between June and September, and placed in the State House in Philadelphia. It was first used by Thomson on September 16, 1782, to verify signatures on a document which authorized George Washington to negotiate an exchange of prisoners.

Charles Thomson, as the Secretary of Congress, remained the keeper of the seal until the Federal government was formed in 1789.[8] On July 24, 1789, President Washington asked Thomson to deliver the seal to the Department of Foreign Affairs in the person of Roger Alden, who kept it until the Department of State was created.[26] All subsequent Secretaries of State have been responsible for applying the Seal to diplomatic documents.

On September 15, 1789, the United States Congress ordered „that the seal heretofore used by the United States in Congress assembled, shall be, and hereby is declared to be, the seal of the United States.”[27][1]

James Trenchard engravings

Trenchard’s Columbian Magazine engravings

In 1786, for the first two issues of Columbian Magazine, Philadelphia engraver James Trenchard wrote articles on the obverse (in September 1786) and reverse (in October 1786) of the Great Seal, and each issue included a full-page engraving of his own original version of the discussed side of the seal. The project apparently was aided by William Barton, as the official law was printed along with supplemental notes from Barton. Trenchard’s obverse featured randomly placed stars, like Thomson’s drawing, and had the rays of the glory extending beyond the clouds upward, with the clouds themselves being in an arc. The reverse also followed the blazon carefully, and featured an elongated pyramid with the requisite mottos and the Eye of Providence (a right eye, unlike versions which followed). While not official, Trenchard’s depiction had an obvious influence on subsequent official versions, and was the first known public rendering of the reverse side (and only one for many years).[8][28]


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