This Week in 1782: America Expresses its Values in the Great Seal
On July 4, 1776, one of the first things the Continental Congress did after declaring independence for the American colonies from Great Britain was to commission the development of a seal. Or, as we call it now, “The Great Seal of the United States.” It was to be used to indicate the authority and authenticity of the object (letter, treaty, law, passport, etc.) that displayed it. Calling for a seal that represented the combined authority and will of the leadership of all of the thirteen colonies was an important step in becoming a true sovereign nation. They wanted a seal that would symbolize their ideals, aspirations, and, most of all, their independence and freedom.
It would take six years, three committees, and more than a dozen people to come up with the ideas and symbols that would end up being included in the seal. In the end, one man was given all of the ideas of the three committees, and he brought together the best of their ideas into one unified seal.
Since then, it has become one of the most ubiquitous seals of all time. In fact, there is probably an imprint of the seal not far away from you right now—both the front and back of the seal are printed on the one dollar bill. The actual seal is kept in the State Department, and the Secretary of State is its official custodian.
A bald eagle—our national bird—is at the center of the shield that is found on one side of the seal, and the national motto, E pluribus unum (Latin for “One from many”), is inscribed on the scroll it holds in its beak. The eagle grasps arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other—symbolic of the powers of war and peace. A shield with thirteen red and white stripes seems to hang from the eagle’s breast, both a symbol of the founding colonies and an assertion that the newly minted Americans would rely on their own strength and character and no one else’s. The blue field and stars found on the flag are also found on the seal, and those colors represented the virtues of the new country: red stands for valor, white stands for purity, blue stands for perseverance and justice.
On June 20, 1782, Congress voted their approval of the Great Seal. Since then it has been a powerful unifying symbol of the United States. This date—halfway between Memorial Day and Independence Day is a reminder that at the very beginning of our history as a nation our leaders came together and struggled to find a unifying symbol for how America thinks, works, and aspires to great ideals and goals. They meant to bring the thirteen colonies together in ways that went beyond what they were against. And they wanted a symbol—a seal—that would stand for the nation they were determined to become. In the seal, they passed along a symbolic record of the values they wanted future generations to know mattered the most to them.
And it still matters. Those big ideas still resonate and are still important. So important, in fact, that we print the symbol for them on our money—and seek to be the people our founding fathers believed that we could be.