Judd W. Patton, Ph.D. (Biography) Bellevue University Online
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The Real Meaning and Significance of the Great Seal of the United States

by
Dr. Judd W. Patton
(Originally Written in 1987 for the Bicentennial)

       Virtually everyone has seen America’s national Coat of Arms!  It is called the Great Seal of the United States, and it is on the back of every one-dollar bill.  However, few Americans understand the mysterious symbolism and emblems it contains.  Indeed, there is even much misinformation about it.

       It is now time for all Americans to grasp the symbolic significance within our national Coat of Arms.  Through it our Founding Fathers speak to us.

       So, before reading on, find a one-dollar bill.  Then, if George Washington is facing you, turn him over.  Now, do you see an eagle, a constellation of stars, arrows, and an olive branch?  These artistic symbols form the design on the front side of the Great Seal (if it were viewed as a coin).  Now, on the left hand side of the dollar bill you notice a pyramid with an eye at its zenith along with some Latin words. This is the reverse side of our National Coat of Arms.  Both sides contain deep meaning and significance for Americans.

Historical Development

       When our Founding Fathers declared their independence from England in 1776, it was the prevailing custom for a nation to have a national coat of arms.  Such coats of arms were generally emblems or symbols that commemorated an important event or identified some outstanding quality of that nation.  Therefore, on the very day of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Second Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams the task of creating an appropriate Coat of Arms for the United States.

      After six weeks of much work and discussion, the committee seemed on the verge of a recommendation.  Ben Franklin described the proposed Seal in this manner:  “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 Deity. Motto: Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”1 But in the end, the committee was not completely satisfied and their report to Congress was tabled.

      The Continental Congress then proceeded to appoint two further committees before an acceptable Seal was designed.  The Continental Congress adopted the Great Seal on June 20, 1782, and eventually the U.S. Congress approved it on September 15, 1789.

      The final design on the face of the Great Seal was primarily the creation of William Barton, an expert heraldist.  Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress, was responsible for the reverse side.

      Given this background, it is now possible to unravel the mystery of the symbolism contained in our nation’s Coat of Arms.

Face of the Great Seal – Symbolism Explained

      The main feature of our national Seal is an American bald eagle with raised wings.  Here in symbolism are the three branches of government as established by the Constitution – the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The head of the eagle represents the President or executive branch; the top of the shield, called the Chief, represents the Congress; and the eagle’s tail feathers symbolize the Judiciary.  You will notice that there are nine feathers, one for each Justice of the Supreme Court.

      Now go back to the shield for a moment.  The vertical lines, thirteen of them, stand for the original thirteen states.  If you could see the Great Seal in color, you would notice that the shield contains six red stripes and seven white stripes.  The Chief (top of the shield) would be blue.  According to Charles Thomson, “White signifies purity and innocence; Red, hardiness and valor; and Blue signifies vigilance, perseverance, and justice.”  Of course our flag would have the same color symbolism.

      Finally, notice that the eagle’s beak holds a scroll inscribed with the Latin motto, “E PLURIBUS UNUM” meaning “OUT OF MANY, ONE.”  Our nation became unified as one nation when thirteen original states signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

     Next notice what is held in the eagle’s talons.  The right talon holds out an olive branch containing thirteen leaves and thirteen olives. (You need good eyes to count these olives!)  Obviously, the olive branch is a symbol for peace.  Thus the United States always desires peace rather than conflict or war as indicated by the eagle’s face being turned toward the olive branch.

     In the left talon the eagle clutches a bundle of thirteen arrows.  The symbolism is again clear.  The United States will defend itself if threatened. Interestingly, in times of war, the eagle is turned to face the arrows.

     Above the head of the eagle appears a crest or constellation of thirteen stars against a blue sky, surrounded by rays of light and an encircling cloud.  Clearly each star represents one of the original states – Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island.  The significance of the light rays and cloud, known as a “glory” or “breaking through a cloud,” will be explained later.

Symbolism of the Great Seal’s Reverse Side

       The symbolism on the backside of our official Coat of Arms is less familiar to most people, but perhaps even more significant and revealing.

       Notice the unfinished pyramid. At its base are the Roman numerals MDCCLXXVI that stand for 1776.  The scroll below the pyramid contains the motto, “NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM.” Translated from the Latin it proclaims, “A NEW ORDER OF THE AGES.” Yes, on July 4, 1776 a new order was begun based on “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

       Now notice that the pyramid, long recognized as a symbol of strength and durability, contains thirteen layers of stone, again symbolizing the original thirteen states.  The unfinished aspect of the pyramid suggests there is room for other states to be added to the nation.  I wonder if our Founders envisioned another thirty-seven states?

       At the pinnacle of the pyramid is a triangle containing a single eye surrounded by the sun’s rays known as a sunburst.  What could this possibly symbolize?  The answer is revealed in the thirteen-letter motto immediately above the eye – “ANNUIT COEPTIS.”  Translated into English, it reads: “HE (GOD) HAS FAVORED OUR UNDERTAKINGS.”  Thus the eye symbolizes that God is atop or leading our nations.  Yes, our Founders felt God had established a new order for the ages and that the Coat of Arms should reflect this most noteworthy characteristic of our nation.

Further Insights

       Why did William Barton and Charles Thomson choose these symbols of the pyramid, eagle, etc? While our answer cannot be definitive, much can be surmised from the historical record.

       Our Founders were strongly religious and Bible students. They, especially Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams, drew a parallel between the Israelite’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery and their own deliverance from England.  Therefore, could it be a coincidence that our national Seal contains a pyramid, foremost monument of Egypt, an eagle, golden radiance or sunburst, and a cloud?  All these symbols were integral to the Red Sea episode.

       Consider the Red Sea story and Israel’s deliverance from Pharaoh. The Israelites were protected by God by a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day (Exodus 13:21).  Remember the scene in the movie The Ten Commandments where the pillar of  fire held back the Egyptians until the Israelites could proceed to cross the Red Sea?  The account is in Exodus 14.  Then, later God reveals that the Israelites were borne on eagle’s wings. “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to Myself (Exodus 19:4).  Eagle’s wings were a sign of divine deliverance and protection.

       It seems, therefore, that our Coat of Arms revolves critically around Biblical symbols of divine protection, dependence, and favor – the eagle, and the eye with its sunburst “breaking through a cloud.”

Summary and Conclusion

        So, there you have it, the plain meaning and significance of our Great Seal.  The number thirteen is “stamped” so to speak on the Seal seven times. Can you find them all?

       The structure of America’s government as established by the Constitution (could Isaiah 33:22 have played a part in their thinking?) is represented by the eagle’s head, the shield on the eagle’s breast and the eagle’s tail feathers. As a nation we always prefer peace to war as revealed in the olive branch and arrows. And the eye of God surrounded by the “pillar of fire,” the thirteen stars bursting out of the cloud, the pyramid, and the eagle all symbolize a new nation led by God out of slavery to freedom.

       Having just celebrated the Bicentennial, we as Americans ought to reflect on how well we as a nation represent our national Coat of Arms.  In other words, does it still apply to us?  Are we one nation under God? Do we realize that true freedom or liberty comes from God and obedience to His Law?

       Our Founders studied the Bible.  Many knew that, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Liberty”  (2 Corinthians 3:17), and that anyone who “looks into the perfect law of liberty (Ten Commandments) and continues therein…this one will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25). Moreover, many were convinced that, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD” (Psalm 33:12).  John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

      Our Founders speak to us through the Great Seal of the United States. Through this seal they commemorated coming out of bondage to establish a nation under the authority of God and obedience to His commandments, with liberty and justice for all. It’s a great vision and legacy.  Will Americans capture the vision of our Founders as symbolized in our national Coat of Arms?  This is the crucial question that faces Americans in the years ahead.

__________

1Raymond F. McNair. Ascent to Greatness (Altadena, California: Triumph Publishing Company, 1976), p. 136. I am indebted to Dr. McNair for his historical development of the Great Seal and the many insights about the Seal.

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