The Most Splendid Carpet
NPS Logo


The United States Seal

Perhaps the most obvious symbol was the carpet's central medallion, the Great Seal of the United States, adopted by Congress in 1782. This striking seal with its stiff, unrealistic eagle was the official coat of arms of this country until it was replaced by a new and more naturalistic design in 1841.

The seal was conceived by the Continental Congress in 1776, the first item of business after the Declaration of Independence had been adopted. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were named to the committee to take care of this very important detail. It was assumed that the committee would select a device for the coat of arms which would represent the United States as an independent nation, like the seals of Great Britain and France. This meant that the seal would need to be true to an armorial model recognizable to all.

In an age when one's family crest was an important aspect of identity, the vocabulary of heraldry was second nature to most educated Americans. In the Library Company of Philadelphia could be found the "Armourers bible," Joseph Edmondson's A Complete Body of Heraldry, published in London in 1780, which listed every acceptable heraldic element, prescribed its use, and pictured every crest ever used in England and Ireland.

FIGURE 20: Detail of the German Imperial Eagle from Pl. 12 of Guillim's Heraldrie. Courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia.

Even with these resources, the committee of three was unable to come up with an acceptable design, for the "device" they chose was in fact a complicated emblem, esoteric to such a degree as to preclude easy recognition of the seal. Congress tabled the report until 1782, when a new committee engaged William Barton and Charles Thomson, the Secretary of Congress, to complete the job. After some argument, they agreed on a design which Congress adopted.

That Congress insisted on proper heraldic detail explains many of the features of the seal which may appear incongruous to viewers familiar only with the modern seal adopted in 1904. The central supporter of the crest with its familiar stripes is not the American bald eagle of the later design, but an eagle adopted from the proper form of heraldry, the German imperial eagle. This emaciated eagle, with protruding crest and spread wings, is the "eagle displayed," as we know from William Barton's remarks on the design. His words emphasize the importance he placed on having a readable seal of traditional heraldry: "The Escutcheon being placed on the Breast of the Eagle displayed is a very ancient Mode of bearing, and is truly imperial. The Eagle displayed is an Heraldical Figure; and, being borne in the manner here described, supplies the Place of Supporters and Crest. The American States need no Supporters but their own Virtue, and the Preservation of their Union through Congress." [7]

A concern for heraldic accuracy also explains the other details of the seal. The shield itself was a heraldic composition: the thirteen "pieces of the pale," or stripes, "represent the Several States," while the crosspiece, or "chief," "unites the whole and represents Congress." The whole shield, called the "Escutcheon," denoted "the Confederacy of the United States of America and the preservation of their Union through Congress." As for the olive branch and arrows clutched in the talons of the eagle, these derived from classical symbolism and were used in heraldry to represent peace and war. In the United States seal they denoted "the power of peace and war which is exclusively vested in Congress." [8]

FIGURE 21: Frontispiece of the Great Seal of the United States from Les Constitutions des Treize États Unis de l'Amérique, printed by Benjamin Franklin, Paris, 1783. Independence National Historical Park Collection.

The thirteen stars were arranged in a symmetrical design of a six pointed star to represent a constellation, "a new State taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers." The stars were six-pointed to follow Edmondson's dictum that a star could have no fewer than six points. Frequently in heraldic designs stars had more than six points, sometimes as many as fifteen. [9] The circle of clouds surrounding the constellation also was a meaningful symbol, which signified the perpetuity of the new confederation of states.

The remaining element in the seal is the scroll clasped in the eagle's beak, containing the Latin motto "E pluribus unum," "out of many, one." This enigmatic motto may have been proposed by Benjamin Franklin, for it first appeared on the seal design tabled by Congress in 1776. In any case, it too is a proper heraldic element, used in many eighteenth century crests. It followed the sixteenth century rules for such a motto, an outgrowth of the "device" or symbolic personal insignia of the important families of the Renaissance. Here, according to Dr. Frank H. Sommer of the Winterthur Museum, the motto was required to be enigmatic; therefore it had to be in a language different from that of the maker of the device. [10] For Americans, Latin fit this definition, and appealed to the neoclassical imagination of the leaders of the time as well.

From the moment of its appearance, the seal was adopted for other uses. Although the seal itself was intended to be applied only to commissions of Cabinet and diplomatic officers, ceremonial communications to foreign governments, treaties with foreign powers, Presidential proclamations, and other official documents, the design was quickly adopted for other needs more symbolic than official. Benjamin Franklin used an adaptation of the seal as a title page engraving for a book printed in his house in Passy, France, Les Constitutions des Treize États-Unis. Translated by Franklin's friend the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, this book, published in 1783, only a year after the seal was adopted, was its first appearance outside the channels of officialdom.

In 1783, when the officers of the Revolutionary Army formed the Society of the Cincinnati, Pierre Charles l'Enfant persuaded them to adopt the eagle in a drooped wing, bannerless version for their badge, which he had stamped and cut in France. Although l'Enfant was not especially looking to the seal eagle for inspiration (he liked the bald eagle because its white head and tail set it apart from the birds of other nations), the Cincinnati eagle, like the seal eagle, had a crest and did resemble the seal in its pose, holding olive branch and arrows in its talons, and was an example of how, among the country's leaders at least, the eagle was immediately accepted as a suitable symbol. [11]

But neither the medal of the Order of the Cincinnati nor the book with the seal on the title page were widely circulated. It was left to James Trenchard to make the first truly popular representation of the official seal, in 1786, when he engraved a 9 by 5 inch plate depicting the "Arms of the United States," for the frontispiece of the Columbian Magazine of September. Trenchard's engraving differed from the official Seal by substituting one semicircular cloud above the eagle's head for the ring of clouds, with the thirteen stars more widely scattered. It is a much sturdier eagle, with strong, feathered legs, holding arrows and olive branch of a different design. Perhaps most significant, the Columbian eagle lacks a crest. This makes it the first representation of the true American bald eagle, an altogether stronger and more American fellow than the stiffly displayed seal eagle. By 1790, the eagle had become the most popular symbol of America yet devised. According to Phillip Isaacson, it filled the need for "a flexible token of our nationality, one that could be bellicose and contentious when necessary," but still stood for the peaceful strength of the Union. [12]

FIGURE 22: "Arms of the United States," by James Trenchard, engraved plate in the Columbian Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 1, September, 1786. Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society.

The seal appeared again in 1788 in print form in Amos Doolittle's famous engraving, "A Display of the United States of America," and burst into sculptured form on the pediment of Federal Hall in New York, newly redesigned for George Washington's first inauguration by Pierre Charles l'Enfant. A commemorative painting for Washington's inauguration was commissioned by Congress for St. Paul's Chapel in New York, where the members of Congress worshipped. It, too, showed a fiercely proud American eagle, with arrows, olive branch, and billowing motto.

These popularizations were followed by coins, belt buckles, patriotic porcelain, buttons, and countless other mementoes for the American public. On an official level came the "Indian peace medals" distributed by President Washington to Indian chiefs in the 1790's, and similar peace medals were given to European statesmen in gratitude for their help during the Revolutionary War.

In placing the seal and the eagle in the center of the Senate carpet, then, the designer chose not only the official device of the United States, but also one which was above all a symbol of Congressional authority, and one which within a decade had become the most persuasive popular symbol of the nation's audacity, optimism, pride, and power. The dignity of the imperial eagle, combined in American minds with the striking appearance and controlled ferocity of the American bald eagle, by 1791 gave the seal an emotional power it had not had in 1782; a fitting symbol indeed for the Senators to regard as they debated and shaped the policy of the new nation.

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 30-Nov-2007