First a reminder, dexter is the right hand side from the vantage point of the person (or bird, in this case) who owns the hand. Sinister is the left side.
Though left handed people will disagree, in history, the right side or dexter is considered dominant.
Now, back in the day of the Founding Fathers and the birth of the nation, they took great care in developing the Great Seal which contains the Heraldic Eagle on its obverse side. They positioned the olive branch in the eagle’s dexter talon and had the eagle’s head facing the dominant, dexter side. They intended to demonstrate the new country’s focus on peace but remind of its strength with the arrows.
On June 20, 1782, the Journals of the Continental Congress include a description of the Great Seal. In particular, this portion describes the eagle:
ARMS. Paleways of thirteen pieces, argent and gules; a chief, azure; the escutcheon on the breast of the American bald 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.”
Below the description, their notes add more detail explaining the symbolism behind each of the components.
With the Department of the Treasury and the US Mint, we frequently see the heraldic eagle in their documents and on coins. One example can be seen on the reverse of the Silver American Eagle coin:
The John F. Kennedy half dollar includes another great example:
In the more recent history of United States coinage, the heraldic eagle has remained true to the initial dexter versus sinister use of olive branch and arrows as can be seen in the examples.
But, that was not always the case.
Even after the Continental Congress chose the Great Seal, various mints, post-colonial and the US Mint, used a different heraldic eagle.
For example, these coins included arrows in the right talon:
|1786||IMMUNIS COLUMBIA Eagle Reverse|
|1786||Washington Obverse; Eagle Reverse|
|1787||Massachusetts Cent; Arrows in Right Talons|
|1787||Excelsior Copper; Large Eagle Reverse|
|United States Coinage from US Mint|
On most of the coins, the eagle also faced right while holding the arrows in his right talon.
At the turn of the century, this upset the British. Even though the Revolutionary War had ended, tensions remained high. Some considered the arrows in the right talon were intended to provoke and even wanted to continue to fight.
But, in 1807, the eagles were changed. For many of the coins, the new eagles appeared to be standing on the olive branch and arrows or holding them with both talons.
Several years later, another coin re-introduced the arrows in the right talon, but this time the eagle faced left. This coin, the twenty-cent piece, had a short mintage span, not so much because of British disgruntlement, but the coin did not gain popularity in circulation.
Just think, a few coins could have started another war with the British. In reality, the coins wouldn’t have started the war; instead it would have been disgruntled people looking for a fight. And, maybe they succeeded with the War of 1812.
But, that’s a topic for another day…
Some other interesting reading can be found at these web sites: