When the Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, several pieces of unfinished business remained. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were appointed to a committee to take care of one such detail. The creation of an official seal. The three came up with a first draft but Congress rejected it, approving only the “E pluribus Unum”, (of the many, one), attributed to Thomas Jefferson.
Six years and two such committees later, it was May 1782. The brother of a Philadelphia naturalist provided a drawing showing an eagle displayed as the symbol of “supreme power and authority.” An earlier submission used the phoenix instead of an eagle, representing a nation risen from the ashes of the American Revolution. That bird would be replaced by the eagle in the final design.
Some states adopted the eagle as their symbol as early as 1778. The Continental Congress officially adopted the current design for the seal on this day in 1782. The final design of the obverse (front) side of the seal, depicts a Bald Eagle, the symbol of liberty and freedom. The eagle grasps thirteen arrows in its right talon, symbolizing a strong defense of the thirteen colonies. An olive branch symbolizing peace is held in the other claw. A banner containing Jefferson’s E pluribus Unum, is held in the eagle’s beak.
Prominently displayed on the eagle’s breast is a shield, the thirteen red and white stripes symbolizing the states, all of which support the federal government, represented in blue.
In 1782, the federal government had yet to morph into the all-consuming leviathan which it has since become.
Finally, a constellation of thirteen stars breaks out of the clouds above, signifying a new nation, ready to take its place among the sovereign nations of the earth.
Benjamin Franklin objected to the selection of the eagle, preferring that the turkey made the national symbol. He complained that the eagle tended to steal its dinner from other birds, and that he’d seen them driven away by the tiny Kingbird, no larger than a sparrow. Franklin later wrote to his daughter, saying, “For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
Some versions of the symbol used between 1916 and 1945 showed an eagle facing to its left, toward the arrows, giving rise to the urban legend that the seal is changed to have the eagle face towards the olive branch in peace, and towards the arrows in wartime.
On the reverse (back) side of the Great Seal, the pyramid represents strength and duration, like the great Pyramids at Giza. The Roman numeral MDCCLXXVI at the base of the pyramid, stands for 1776. A Latin phrase, “Novus ordo seclorum”, translates as “New Order of the Ages.” The pyramid itself has thirteen levels, atop which is the Eye of God, with the Latin phrase “Annuit Cœptis,” loosely translating as “favors undertakings.” The hand of Providence, or God, would favor the undertakings of the United States, for all time.
The militant atheist type who’d like to divest himself of all that “church & state” stuff may at this point feel free to send his dollar bills, to me. I’m happy to help. I’m in the book.