Our National Portrait: The Great Seal of the United States
Marion Smith /
The decision to adopt a national seal was made on July 4, 1776, the same day that the Continental Congress declared America’s independence from Great Britain. As a practical matter, America needed an official emblem to affix to diplomatic and official documents in order to signify its sovereignty as a new nation. And yet our Great Seal would become so much more than a mark of sovereignty; the symbolism of the Great Seal reflects America’s universal, timeless ideas.
As opposed to the state seals of European nations, the imagery of America’s seal would not represent historical experience or the heraldic symbols of a ruling monarchy. Instead, the Great Seal of America would embody the ideas that had inspired the American Revolution and would guide the American people as they established a new government in order to secure the blessings of liberty.
And so Congress appointed a committee to design the Great Seal. At a deliberative speed, with which subsequent generations would become familiar, the Congressional process involved three committees and the contributions of fourteen men over six years. The final design was based on a sketch by Congressional Secretary Charles Thomson (original sketch pictured above) and was adopted by Congress on June 20, 1782.
E Pluribus Unum – “Out of Many, One”
The obverse side of the seal features an American bald eagle, symbolizing liberty and independence, behind a shield of 13 alternating red and white stripes. The eagle holds 13 arrows in its left talon, representing the military preparedness of the U.S., and an olive branch in its right talon denoting peace. The shield and arrows illustrate that America is ever prepared for war in the defense of its liberty. The eagle’s head, however, is turned towards the olive branch signifying America’s preference for peace. The importance of the number 13 is represented throughout, signifying the unity of the 13 states without which no political achievement would have been possible.
Novus Ordo Seclorum – “A New Order for the Ages”
The seal’s reverse shows an incompletely built pyramid with 13 levels. Charles Thomson explained that the “pyramid signifies Strength and Duration…The date underneath is that of the Declaration of Independence  and the words under it [novus ordo seclorum] signify the beginning of the new American Era, which commences from that date.” Yet the pyramid, like America, is incomplete.
More states would be added and the liberty of some Americans was yet to be realized. Despite the deeply saturated stain of slavery, the American Founders had philosophically committed themselves to the proposition that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” – a seed of truth that once planted, would come to full fruition for all Americans.
The British author G. K. Chesterton profoundly observed that “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.” That creed, or political philosophy, is represented by our Great Seal. The “new American Era” would represent a new age where liberty was honored over tyranny, self-government over dependency, and virtue over power.
Annuit Cœptis – “God Approves”
Atop the unfinished pyramid, there is a heavenly, all-seeing eye accompanied by the Latin phrase annuit cœptis, meaning “God approves.” Thomson explained that the “Eye over it and the Motto allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favour of the American cause.” Regardless the earthly accomplishments of the new young nation, the symbol of the divine would forever remain above, at the “zenith” of America’s political experiment. The representatives in Congress believed that the United States had been blessed with divine approval. On the Great Seal, they intended to recognize the existence of a higher moral order to which politics, individuals, and states are accountable.
The average American often sees the Great Seal since it appears on military insignia, U.S. passports, the one-dollar bill, and other official government documents. It is a visual reminder of the essence of this nation. America was not founded primarily in opposition to tyranny, but in favor of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In 2011, we still live in that “American Era” initiated in the year 1776. America is an idea, and the Great Seal is our portrait. Do you see the resemblance?