Today, the Kennedy Half Dollar Coin tells the story of the development of the Great Seal and its symbolism.
The Bulletin of the American Iron and Steel Association published in April 1893 included the description of the development efforts and the first use:
The proposition to secure a seal of the United States was made immediately after the reading of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, and “Dr. Franklin, Mr. J. Adams, and Mr. Jefferson ” were appointed a committee to consider the matter.
They made a report in the following August. It did not meet general approval and nothing further was done until March 25, 1779, when the matter was referred to a new committee, consisting of Lovell, of Massachusetts; Scott, of Virginia; and Houstoun, of Georgia, men of no special prominence.
They reported on May 10, 1780. Again opposition was manifested, and the report was referred to a committee consisting of Middleton and Rutledge, of South Carolina, and Boudinot, of New Jersey.
When this committee reported its report was referred to Charles Thomson, then Secretary of Congress.
About the year 1782 William Barton, A. M, a resident of Philadelphia, was called into consultation as an expert, and he submitted a report containing little of value except the suggestion of the use of the eagle on the seal.
Then Charles Thomson submitted his device, suggesting an eagle bearing a shield on its breast and grasping the olive branch and the arrows in its claws.
Then Mr. Barton submitted “an improvement on Mr. Thomson’s device.”
On June 20, 1782, the seal was finally decided upon, as appears from the following passage from the “Journals of Congress: ”
On report of the Secretary, to whom were referred the several reports on the device for a great seal, to take order:
The device for an armorial achievement and reverse of the great seal of the United States in Congress assembled is as follows:
ARMS. Taleways of thirteen pieces, argent and gules; a chief, azure; the escutcheon on the breast of the American eagle displayed proper, holding in his dexter talon an olive branch and in his sinister a bundle of thirteen arrows, all proper, and in his beak a scroll, inscribed with this motto, “E Pluribus Unum. ”
For the CREST. Over the head of the eagle, which appears above the escutcheon, a glory, or, breaking through a cloud, proper, and surrounding thirteen stars, forming a constellation, argent, on an azure ﬁeld.
REVERSE. A pyramid unfinished.
In the zenith an eye in a triangle, surrounded with a glory proper. Over the eye these words, “Annuit Cœptis.” On the base of the pyramid the numerical letters MDCCLXXVI. And underneath the following motto, “Novus Ordo Seclorum.”
The new seal was cut in brass soon after it was decided upon, and was used, probably for the first time, on a commission dated September 16, 1782, granting full power and authority to George Washington to arrange with the British for exchange of prisoners of war.
The commission is signed by John Hanson, President of Congress, and counter signed by Charles Thomson, Secretary, the seal being impressed upon the parchment over a white wafer fastened by red wax in the upper left-hand corner instead of the lower left-hand corner, as is now the custom.
This seal continued in use for fifty-nine years.
The present seal differs from it only in details of execution.
The first seal was cut in Philadelphia, probably. The reverse of the seal was not cut then, nor has it ever been cut since.
“As it cannot conveniently be used, ” says the State Department, “it has been allowed to go unnoticed officially to the present day.”
The second seal was cut in 1841, Daniel Webster being Secretary of State.
It contained but six arrows. This seal continued in use until 1885, when a new one became necessary.
This one is of the same general design as the others but is more artistic. In his sinister talon the eagle holds thirteen arrows, as in the first seal.
The Secretary of State is the custodian of the seal of the United States, but has no power to affix it to any paper that does not bear the President’s signature.
The Department of State provides the description of the Great Seal’s symbolism written by Charles Thomson:
“The Escutcheon is composed of the chief [upper part of shield] & pale [perpendicular band], the two most honorable ordinaries [figures of heraldry]. The Pieces, paly [alternating pales], represent the several states all joined in one solid compact entire, supporting a Chief, which unites the whole & represents Congress. The Motto alludes to this union. The pales in the arms are kept closely united by the Chief and the Chief depends on that union & the strength resulting from it for its support, to denote the Confederacy of the United States of America & the preservation of their union through Congress.
“The colours of the pales are those used in the flag of the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue, the colour of the Chief signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice. The Olive branch and arrows denote the power of peace & war which is exclusively vested in Congress. The Constellation denotes a new State taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers. The Escutcheon is born on the breast of an American Eagle without any other supporters [figures represented as holding up the shield] to denote that the United States of America ought to rely on their own Virtue.
“Reverse. The pyramid signifies Strength and Duration: The Eye over it & the Motto allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favour of the American cause. The date underneath is that of the Declaration of Independence and the words under it signify the beginning of the New American Era, which commences from that date.”
The Kennedy Half Dollar Coin shows beside an image of the first die for the obverse of the Great Seal used in 1782.