The Great Seal of the United States

The Great Seal of the United States is a symbol of our independent nation and its power.  The obverse—or front—pictures the coat of arms of America, and is used for everything from authenticating official documents like treaties and presidential proclamations, to decorating military uniform buttons.  Both the obverse and reverse are depicted on the one-dollar bill.

For today’s spotlight document, we have the 1782 original design of our Great Seal.  Hours after adopting the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee to design the nation’s seal.  The first attempt was proposed by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, but was quickly tabled by Congress due to its complexity.  One key feature, though, still remains a part of our Great Seal: E Pluribus Unum, or, “Out of Many, One.”

Great Seal
Design for the Verso of the Great Seal of the United States, 1782. From the Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention. National Archives Identifier: 595257

It was not until two more committees were created and six years had passed, that Congress’ Secretary Charles Thomson combined elements from the three previous designs and created the final seal.  On it, the American bald eagle is the focal point and the sole supporter of the blue shield displaying 13 red and white chevrons.  A bundle of olive branches are held in one of the eagle’s talons, and 13 arrows in the other.  Above the bird, sits a constellation of 13 stars.

Congress approved the design on June 20, 1782—and apart from slight alterations made by Philadelphian William Barton, and appearance updates every few decades—the Great Seal of the United States remains largely unchanged.

You can see more documents from the founding of the United States on DocsTeach, our online tool for teaching with documents.

Today’s post came from Holly Chisholm, former social media intern in the Education and Public Programs division.

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