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The Chain of States

Surrounding the Great Seal in the middle of the Senate carpet was "a chain formed of thirteen shields emblematic of each state." The source for this patriotic motif symbolizing the strength of the Union was most probably Amos Doolittle's engraving "A Display of the United States of America." This magnificently appropriate motif for the United States was the result of a simple and obvious combination: the circle had symbolized eternity and perfection throughout history, and the chain, bonding and strength. It is hard to imagine anything more meaningfully connotative for thirteen colonies recently joined than a chain of circles, each one representing a particular state, arranged in a circle to represent their union in perpetuity.

American patriots could look to classical times for examples of combined circles used decoratively, sometimes with, but usually without, symbolic meaning. Intricate floor mosaics dating from Roman times frequently include a line of adjacent circles, not, however, interlinked. The guilloche of Greek and Roman architectural decoration is another familiar example which continued in use through the Romanesque period to the classic revival of the Renaissance. The "adjacent circles" motif was a favorite device of Robert Adam, of which innumerable examples survive. [13]

FIGURE 23: "Half a Dollar," paper currency, printed in Philadelphia, 1776. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Division of Numismatics.

In America, the motif of circles, linked together by a fortuitous leap of some unknown patriot's imagination, suddenly acquired a symbolic meaning. An early example was the seal of the American Union Masonic Lodge of 1775, suggested but not proven to have been designed by Benjamin Franklin who was an enthusiastic supporter of this "traveling" lodge. Here Masonic symbols including the calipers and sun, moon and star were surrounded by a chain of thirteen circles closed at the top by the Masonic clasped hands symbolizing friendship. A perhaps more familiar example was the Newburyport, Massachusetts, flag of 1776, where a continuous chain of thirteen oval links symbolized "in Union there is strength." [14]

The appeal of the chain of states as a patriotic motif was not lost on representatives of American officialdom. The Continental Congress, desperate for funds to finance the army during the beginning years of the Revolutionary War, seized upon the chain of states to embellish its currency; the half dollar denomination has a continuous chain of thirteen linked circles, with, for the first time, the name of each state abbreviated on each link. Inside the chain was a smaller circle, with the words "American Congress" in an outside border, and in the center the motto, "We are one." The chain of states thus for the first time received official recognition as a symbol of the Congress, and of the union of the States.

Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin thought of the states as thirteen links in a chain when they were struggling with their first design for the Great Seal in August of 1776, of which only a verbal description exists. The obverse of their design (a complicated scene involving Pharaoh pursuing the Israelites across the Red Sea) included a "shield, within a border, gules, entwined of thirteen escutcheons, argent, linked together by a chain, or, each charged with initial sable letters for each of the thirteen independent States of America." [15] This design, of course, was not adopted, and over the years of delay before a seal was finally approved, the formal drawings accompanying the proposal disappeared.

William Barton, designing a preliminary version of what would be the final seal in 1782, was the first to verbalize the symbolism of the circle in this context. Using a motif reminiscent of the chain of states in the circle of clouds issuing from the head of the eagle, and in the thirteen stars within that cloud which he had arranged in a circle, he declared in his report to the Committee that they represented "a new Constellation, which alludes to the new Empire, formed in the World by the Confederation of those States. Their Disposition, in the form of a circle, denotes the Perpetuity of its Continuance, the Ring being the Symbol of Eternity." [16]

After 1776, the by now familiar chain of states appeared many times, on the flag of the 2nd New Hampshire Regiment during the Revolution, as a symbol of the United States in a German almanac, on Wedgwood pottery, and Liverpool jugs, and even on a brass button made for the inauguration of George Washington. Paul Revere used it as part of his design for the masthead of The Massachusetts Spy, a Boston newspaper, in 1781.

Its semi-official quality made it supremely suitable for Amos Doolittle's 1788 engraving, designed to spread the news quickly and broadly of the official beginning of the United States of America under the Constitution. Doolittle adopted the linked circles just as they appeared on the Continental currency, and in the same order, but he added population figures and numbers of representatives to the names of the states inscribed on each link. He added one more circle to the chain, containing the Great Seal of the United States, and attached it to the links on each side with tiny padlocks, thus emphasizing the strength and perpetuity of the Union. Inside each of the other links, he engraved the seals of the individual states, once thought of by some as sovereign nations, but now subordinate to the whole.

The Doolittle engraving was popular, patriotic and readily available, a natural source for the designers of the Senate carpet. The quasi-official nature of the chain of states, once used on Continental currency together with the words, "American Congress," made it eminently suitable for inclusion on a carpet designed for the floor of the upper chamber of that Congress.

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Last Updated: 30-Nov-2007