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The Great Seal
of the United States


     The American bald eagle is the most prominent feature of the Seal of the United States.   Across the breast of the eagle is a shield with 13 alternating red and white stripes (the pales) representing the 13 original States.  Note that the stripes alternate in opposite fashion from the stripes on our flag.  On the seal the stripes begin and end with a white stripe, while on the flag the first and last stripe are red.   Across the top of the shield is a blue field (chief) that unites all the stripes into one.  The blue chief represents the United States Congress.  In his talons the eagle grasps an olive branch representing peace, and 13 arrows representing war.   These demonstrate our desire for peace but our willingness to defend with might, the Nation the Seal represents.

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     Above the eagle are thirteen stars inside a circular design, representing a "New Constellaton", the same constellation referred to in the blue union of the of the United States Flag.    In his beak the eagle grasps a flowing ribbon bearing the first MOTTO of the United States:

E Pluribus Unum

These Latin words are translated "Out of many, One", reminding us that out of many States was born One new Nation.

The similarities between the Great Seal and the United States Flag are no accident.  Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey is generally credited with the design for our first flag, the Congress Colors of 1775.  He was Chairman of the Continental Navy's Middle Department at the time the Flag Resolution was adopted on June 14, 1777 establishing the "Stars and Stripes" flag, and most historians believe that he was responsible for replacing the British Union Jack of the Congress Colors with the 13 stars of the new flag.  He is also generally credited with the design for the Seal of the United States.
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(Years later Francis Hopkinson sent a petition to the Continental Admiralty Board seeking reward for his services in design of these and other early American symbols.  In that letter he asked if "a Quarter Cask of the public wine will not be a proper and reasonable reward for these labours of fancy and a suitable encouragement to future exertions of a like nature."  His request was denied because he was considered a "public servant", and was ineligible for payment for such services.)

On July 4, 1776, our first Independence Day, the Continental Congress passed a resolution authorizing a committee including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams to research and devise a National Motto as well a seal for their new Nation.  On September 9th Congress gave that new Nation a name, calling it the "United States".  During that meeting the motto "E Pluribus Unum" was generally accepted as the Nation's motto, though the official vote did not occur until later.  Likewise, the adoption of a National Seal would not occur until much later.

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In 1782 Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, introduced this design for the new Seal of the United States.   He told the members of Congress:

"The colors of the pales are those used in the flag of the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness and valour, and Blue, the color of the Chief signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice."

On June 20, 1782 Congress approved the design, and the Great Seal of the United States was born.  The image of the eagle within the seal became our National "Coat of Arms".

Heraldic devices such as our Great Seal have been in use for centuries.  Some of the earliest seals were carved into the face of a ring worn by a monarch.   Official documents were quickly recognized by the impression of the king's seal in soft wax applied to the document.

The OBVERSE FRONT of the Great Seal of the United States  authenticates the President's signature on many official documents.  The Great Seal die, counter die, press and cabinet that contains them are located in the Exhibit Hall of the Department of State.  Nearly 3,000 times a year the Department of State receives official documents ranging from ratification of treaties to communications from the President to officials of foreign governments.  When these have been duly signed by the President and counter-signed by the Secretary of State, an officer from the State Department's Presidential Appointments Staff affixes the Great Seal of the United States to authenticate the signatures.


The preceding information introduces you to a term that might be new in your study of the Great Seal..."The Obverse Front".  The word "Obverse" identifies an object as a COUNTERPART of another object.  By referring to something as the OBVERSE you are indicating two things about an object:

1)  There is a second, or REVERSE side, and
2)  The OBVERSE side is the front or principle side of the two-sided object.

REVERSE OF THE GREAT SEAL

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The main feature of the reverse side of the Great Seal is a pyramid representing strength and duration.  At the top of the pyramid is an eye and the words "ANNUIT COEPTIS" meaning "He has favored our undertakings".  The "HE" refers to GOD, and is in reference to the Founding Father's belief that God had favored our Nation and provided providentially for our success during the struggle for freedom.  (During the Revolution, prayer was held daily in the halls of the Continental Congress.)  At the base of the pyramid are the Roman numerals for the year 1776, the year of our Nation's birth.  The scroll at the bottom contains the words "NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM" meaning "A new order of the ages" and referring to the new American era.

The reverse of the Great Seal is NEVER used as a seal for official documents, though it can be found from time to time on some official papers.   The reverse of our One Dollar Bills contain images of BOTH the Obverse of the Great Seal of the United States, and the Reverse of the Great Seal.

On July 30, 1956 the words "In God we Trust" were designated as our National Motto (Title 36, Chapter 10, 186).  

 

 

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