Skip to comments.Religious Symbolism in the Great Seal of the United States
Posted on 08/20/2009 5:46:52 PM PDT by betty boop
RELIGIOUS SYMBOLISM IN THE GREAT SEAL OF THE UNITED STATES
The Great Seal of the United States of America is a cornerstone document in the foundation of the American Republic, created in 1782, midway between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional Convention. Its creation was entrusted to the brilliant classical scholar Charles Thomson (17291824), Founding Father, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Secretary of the Continental Congress throughout its entire duration the second-highest ranking office in the nation at that time, after only the President of the Congress.
The Great Seal was approved by Congress on June 20, 1782. Congress published an official description of its heraldic symbolism at that time. Charles Thomson also commented on the symbolism of the design. These two sources are the only official explanation we have of the original meaning and intent of the Great Seal.
The Great Seal has two sides, both of which can be seen on the U.S. one-dollar bill. The obverse side also serves as the Presidential Seal. Oddly enough, a die was never made of the reverse side until the Roosevelt Administration decided it wanted to put it on the dollar bill in 1935. Theres an interesting story there about how the original interpretation of the symbolism had changed by that time. Well get to that in a moment. But first, lets take a look at the original symbolic meanings as authorized by Congress in 1782 its images and mottos.
OBVERSE SIDE (The Eagle Side)
The obverse side carries the foundational principles of the American public Order, later formalized in the U.S. Constitution.
The shield on the Eagles breast is composed of thirteen vertical stripes that represent the several states joined into one solid compact supporting the chief (the horizontal bar at the top of the shield), which represents Congress. The stripes are kept closely united by the chief and the chief itself depends upon that union and the strength resulting from it.
The motto E Pluribus Unum alludes to this union. It means, Out of the Many, One. The thirteen sovereign states are the Many that together constitute the One as described in the shield.
The shield is borne on the breast of an American Bald Eagle a fierce raptor without any other supports, denoting that the United States of America ought to rely on their own virtue.
The olive branch and arrows denote the power of peace and war, which is exclusively vested in Congress.
The constellation of thirteen stars denotes a new state taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers; i.e., the other states. Though neither the Congressional nor Thomsons descriptions specifically comment on this, note the constellations superior position on the Great Seal the highest element and the fact that it is surrounded by and seemingly emerging from the clouds of Heaven. The "Shield" may be "secular"; but the stars are ineluctably "heavenly." From a hierarchical point of view, this suggests that the sovereignty of the states (and the people thereof) is ultimately superior to what is represented in the Shield. The coming from the clouds aspect suggests the approval of Heaven for these bodies. This idea is central to a leading idea captured on the reverse side of the Seal the motto Annuit Coeptis.
THE REVERSE SIDE (the Pyramid Side)
The reverse side carries the foundational ideals, values, and principles of the American Founding.
The Pyramid signifies strength and duration. Many commentators have sought significance in the number of bricks or stones constituting the Pyramid, and in the shadow it casts. However, Congress and Thomson himself are silent on this point. Probably these elements were simply matters of the artists rendering. The official description of the Great Seal does not specify the number of layers of stone in the pyramid, but it has been traditionally depicted as thirteen.
An argument has been advanced that the pyramid is truncated: Its missing its zenith. Meaning: It simply cuts off, or stops at some point as if the work had been abandoned. But it is clear from Thomsons history of the Great Seal that the Pyramid is to be regarded as merely unfinished.
Zenith means more than apex or summit. It also suggests a highest point or state; a culmination. Which brings us to
The Eye over the Pyramid, and the motto Annuit Coeptis, allude to the many signal interpositions of divine Providence in favor of the American cause that, to men like George Washington and Charles Thomson, were so evident during the Revolutionary War. Both men hoped that Providence would continue to favor the new order of Liberty they were trying to bring to birth in America.
The motto first. Annuit Coeptis was suggested by Charles Thomson in June 1782. He adapted it from the renowned Roman writer Virgils The Georgics, written in the first century B.C.
Annuit means to nod assent, to favor, to smile upon. Coeptis means undertakings, endeavors, beginnings.
Thus Annuit Coeptis means favors (or gives the nod to) undertakings The subject who favors is symbolized by the Eye (which symbolizes divine Providence).
The Latin verb annuit can indicate either present tense or perfect tense. Therefore, an accurate translation of the motto is: Providence favors our undertakings or Providence has favored our undertakings. The motto has also been translated as: He [God] favors our undertakings or He [God] has prospered our endeavors.
Thomson placed the motto at the top of the Great Seals reverse side, where its meaning is associated with the Eye of Providence, which appears in a triangle surrounded by light rays.
Though the official record is silent, some commentators have suggested that the triangle represents the Holy Trinity (Thomson was a devout Christian); And light is Biblically associated with Gods character, or nature.
Many leaders of the American Revolution felt that divine Providence had a hand in securing their Independence, in particular George Washington, who often referred to the smiles of Providence, both during the Revolution, and throughout his later career as president and statesman.
I salute you Gentlemen most Affectionately, and beg leave to remind you, that Liberty, Honor, and Safety are all at stake, and I trust Providence will smile upon our Efforts, and establish us once more, the Inhabitants of a free and happy Country. (August 8, 1776)
The Declaration of Independence itself testifies to its signers understanding of what Annuit Coeptis would later come to symbolize in the Great Seal:
And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.
This Divine Providence is symbolized by the Eye. This is not (as some later revisionists have suggested) the arcane Eye of Horus, or the All-Seeing Eye of Masonry. (Thomson wasnt a Mason.) This is the watchful eye of the Creator God, looking after His creatures as they struggle to create an order of Liberty, and then helping them to preserve it.
As Thomson wrote, the Eye and the motto Annuit Coeptis allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favour of the American cause.
In this way did the Founders believe the unfinished Pyramid of republican liberty could be built up towards its zenith in time.
And the nature of that time is referred to in the motto, Novus Ordo Seclorum. People who dont know their Latin quite as well as Charles Thomson did often translate this motto as the new secular order. But that is not its meaning at all.
Novus means new, young, novel.
Ordo means row, series, order.
Seclorum means of the ages, generations, or centuries.
Thomson had again reverted to Virgil for inspiration for this motto. He adapted it from a line in Virgils Eclogue IV, a pastoral poem that expresses the longing for a new era of peace and happiness.
Thus did Thomson craft the motto, Novus Ordo Seclorum; and he placed it beneath the unfinished pyramid where, as he explained, it signifies the beginning of the new American Era, which commences from the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
The Latin date MDCCLXXVI (1776) underneath the Pyramid is that of the Declaration of Independence, and the words Novus Ordo Seclorum under it signify the beginning of the new American Order, or Era, which commences from that date, unto the ages yet to come.
Thus, the accurate translation of Novus Ordo Seclorum is, A New Order of the Ages. From all the foregoing, we infer that, in Thomsons view, this New Order will be under the Eye of Divine Providence, under God.
The 20th-Century "Reinterpretation"
The story goes like this, according to this outstanding on-line resource and virtual museum" of the history of the Great Seal:
One day in 1934, while Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace was waiting to meet with Secretary of State Cordell Hull, he looked through a State Department publication titled, The History of the Seal of the United States.
Wallace Recollects that Day in letters he wrote in 1951 and in 1955:
Turning to page 53, I noted the colored reproduction of the reverse side of the Seal. The Latin phrase Novus Ordo Seclorum impressed me as meaning the New Deal of the Ages.
I was struck by the fact that the reverse side of the Great Seal had never been used. Therefore I took the publication to President Roosevelt and suggested a coin be put out with the obverse and reverse sides of the Seal.
Roosevelt, as he looked at the colored reproduction of the Seal, was first struck with the representation of the All Seeing Eye, a Masonic representation of The Great Architect of the Universe. Next he was impressed with the idea that the foundation for the new order of the ages had been laid in 1776 but that it would be completed only under the eye of the Great Architect [Roosevelt?]. Roosevelt like myself was a 32nd degree Mason. [Please note here, dear reader, that the Seals designer, Charles Thomson, was not a Mason.]
He suggested that the Seal be put on the dollar bill rather than a coin and took the matter up with the Secretary of the Treasury... He brought it up in Cabinet meeting and asked James Farley [Postmaster General and a Roman Catholic] if he thought the Catholics would have any objection to the All Seeing Eye which he as a Mason looked on as a Masonic symbol of Deity. Farley said no, there would be no objection.
This probably explains why so many people today suspect that the Great Seal of the United States expresses secret Masonic, not Christian, symbols. But for Roosevelt and Wallace to make such associations flies in the face of the Framers clear understanding of what the Seal represents in terms of the historical American understanding of what the moral order of Liberty ultimately requires for its support.
But it gets worse than that. Nowadays, many people increasingly think that the Great Seal of the United States is nothing but a set of logos applicable to the financial world only, as mere logos that appear on our currency. Plus the Eagle side also serves as a logo for the President of the United States. The ideas associated with the Seals creation and history have become almost completely lost to the contemporary public mind.
The moral of this story: Progressive social innovators know that cultural symbols that do not serve their ideological purposes must either be redefined in ways more congenial to their own view of reality, or else be erased from human consciousness and memory altogether.
The only defense against such subversion of American cultural symbols and of the historical interest of the American people they represent, in defining the philosophy of a system of Liberty under equal laws and equal justice, under God is a conscious process of return to them, and recovery of them, in their primary historical meanings.
The links provided about are wonderful places to start.
Just in case anyone was looking for something “interesting to do” today....
If you want something really interesting research “Codex Magica” in relation to the first Matrix movie.
Interesting article about the Seal of the U. S. Thanks for posting.
Many years ago, I read that the original of the seal had the eagle looking to the left toward the arrows but at some point in time was changed to look toward the olive branch. Has anyone else heard of this change from left to right of the eagle’s head?
What was borrowed, invented, and morphed in political symbolism is less so interesting and important, I think..
Some say both kinds of symbols are useless..
They could be wrong.. Actual "words" (in any language) are symbols..
Example: Liberals invented the word "conservative" to describe non "progressives".. meaning "conservative" is for the "same old, same old".. versus the so-called forward looking "progressives"..
My secret covert sneaky message.....
You control the symbols and you control the conversation..
The poor old "conservatives" are eye rolling drooling oblivious to that..
Since most of them are for radical change to the current normal progressive norms.. Except they are afraid of the word "radical".. It scares them like little girls.. You call yourself a radical and the high pitched screaming begins.. in "conservative" circles..
Thanks for posting. Very informative and interesting material.
Excellent post. Thank you.
Of interest to homeschoolers for a history lesson.
Great post, betty boop — and thanks for the ping metmom! Sending a link to my highschooler.
Very interesting. I thought the symbols were Masonic but it looks like that’s not the case.
Another reason to homeschool.
By the way....How many 8th graders if shown a picture of the Last Supper would know what it is?
Thank you oh so very much, dearest sister in Christ!
Yes. I read it at the (rather labyrinthine) link I posted in the main article. It had to do with the use of the obverse side of the Seal in its capacity as the Presidential Seal. But I don't remember the details right now.
I'm sorry I don't have the info at my fingertips. But now, you've given me a good reason to go track that down.
Thank you for writing, LaMudBug!
Went to check it out, LaMudug. There has been a change in the position of the eagle's head, but this change pertains only to the Presidential Seal:
Beginning with President Hayes in 1877, the eagle on the presidential seal traditionally faced the bundle of arrows in its left talon....FYI!
On October 25, 1945, however, President Truman signed Executive Order No. 9646 that legally specified the design of the President's seal and flag. A press release was issued to call attention to the new design:
"In the new Coat of Arms, Seal and Flag, the Eagle not only faces to its right the direction of honor but also toward the olive branches of peace which it holds in its right talon. Formerly the eagle faced toward the arrows in its left talon arrows, symbolic of war."In heraldry, the imagery on the shield's right side (the left side from our point of view) has more importance than the one on its left. The official 1782 description of the Great Seal specifically says the olive branch is held in the eagle's right talon.
Oh, thank you so much, dear sister in Christ, for your kind words!
Young people especially need to become aware of their American heritage. Do you know how surprising it is to me that such an important Founding Father as Charles Thomson is virtually totally unknown to us today?
It is simply amazing, astonishing!
Bless you for that, StarCMC!
As I was just mentioning to metmom, it's astonishing to me that such an important Founding Father as Charles Thomson is almost totally unknown to us today.
I do hope your highschooler will find the article of interest.
I thought so, too, Yardstick, based on what I'd "heard." But then I started my research into the question, and quickly realized that there was simply no way that Charles Thomson would have used Masonic symbols!
Check out his biography at the link provided at the top of the article, and see whether you agree.
In 1782, no more than four people were involved in the development of the Great Seal, and not one of them was a Mason.
Thank you for posting this. My son has to do a presentation each Friday when we meet with our homeschooling group and this would make a perfect one. Very interesting.
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