Today in History: Congress Adopts the Great Seal of the United States

June 20th, 2013

On June 20, 1782, Congress adopted the Great Seal of the United States. The seal’s design took six years, three committees, and the combined efforts of 14 men before it was completed. The final version, combining features suggested by each of the committees, was designed by Charles Thomson of Philadelphia (1729–1824), secretary of the Continental Congress.

Yet despite these efforts, our national seal is widely seen yet little noticed. Most Americans, in fact, hold it in their hands on a daily basis: images of its two sides appear on the back of every one-dollar bill. Like the republic it represents, the Great Seal bears the marks of its origin in democratic deliberation. Each of its various details was hotly debated, including, on its obverse (or front), the bald eagle and the bundle of arrows and olive branch in the eagle’s talons, and, on its reverse (or back), the unfinished pyramid, the Roman numerals at the pyramid’s base, and the eye of Providence above. And, to complicate things further, not one but three mottoes were affixed to the seal. Each is in Latin:E Pluribus Unum (Out of many, one), Annuit Coeptis (He has approved of our undertakings), and, borrowed from Virgil, Novus Ordo Seclorum (A new order of the ages).

Many subscribe to the adage “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Is this the case with the Great Seal of the United States? Can you weave a coherent story from the images affixed on it? Or, are the images—and mottoes—in tension? Why are the mottoes of the United States in Latin rather than English, and what difference does that make? How does the obverse differ from the reverse, and what picture of the nation does each side convey? What feelings do the images evoke in you?

View a picture of the seal and learn more.

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