Real Meaning and Significance of the Great Seal of the United States
Judd W. Patton
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.
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.
this background, it is now possible to unravel the mystery of the symbolism
contained in our nation’s Coat of Arms.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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
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
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