Today, the One Dollar Currency Note remembers when the committee of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson proposed their vision for the Great Seal on August 10, 1776.
The magazine St. Nicholas of July 1906 included an article by Thomas W. Lloyd describing the lengthy birthing process of the infant nation’s Great Seal:
The Great Seal of the United States
It is a fact not generally known, and yet one of peculiar significance, that the great seal of the United States, which was adopted in 1782, was suggested by a citizen of a country with which our own was then at war.
The history of the great seal, and the difficulties which beset those having in charge the matter of selecting a suitable and satisfactory design, is full of interest.
Soon after the Declaration of Independence was signed, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams were appointed a committee to prepare a great seal for the infant republic.
They employed a French West Indian, named Du Simitiere, to furnish designs and sketches; but, although a number were suggested, none proved satisfactory.
Then each member of the committee was asked to submit a design.
Franklin proposed for the device Moses lifting his wand and dividing the Red Sea, and Pharaoh and his hosts overwhelmed with waters, and for a motto, the words of Cromwell: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”
Adams proposed the choice of Hercules; the hero resting on a club, Virtue pointing to her rugged mountain on the one side, and persuading him to ascend, and Sloth, on the other side, glancing at her flowery beds and persuading him into vice.
Jefferson proposed the Children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; and on the reverse side, Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.
Jefferson was then requested by his colleagues to combine their separate ideas into one design, which he did; and this description, in his own handwriting, is still on file in the State Department.
This design consisted of a shield with six quarterings.
The first, gold, with an enameled rose, red and white, for England; the second, white, with a thistle in its proper color, for Scotland; the third, green, with a harp of gold, for Ireland; the fourth, blue, with a golden lily, for France; the fifth, gold, with the imperial black eagle of Germany; and the sixth, gold, with the Belgic crowned red lion, for Holland.
These denoted the countries from which America had been peopled.
He proposed to place this shield within a red border, on which there should be thirteen white escutcheons, linked together by a gold chain, each bearing appropriate initials, in black, of the thirteen original States.
There were supporters on either side of the shield, the one on the right being the Goddess of Liberty in a corselet of armor, in allusion to the then state of war, and holding a spear and cap in her right hand, while the left supported the shield.
On the left was the Goddess of Justice, leaning on a sword in her right hand, and in her left a balance.
The crest was the eye of Providence, in a radiant triangle, whose glory extended over the shield and beyond the figures. The motto was “E Pluribus Unum ” — “One out of many.”
For the reverse, he proposed the device of Pharaoh sitting in an open chariot, a crown on his head and a sword in his hand, passing through the waters of the Red Sea in pursuit of the Israelites, — rays from a pillar of fire in a cloud, expressive of the divine presence and command, beaming on Moses, who stands on the shore and, extending his hand over the sea, causes it to overwhelm Pharaoh and his followers. Motto : ” Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”
Jefferson’s device met with the unqualified approval of his associates, and the committee reported to the Continental Congress on August 10, 1776; but, for some unaccountable reason, their report was never acted upon.
Nothing further was done in the matter until March 24, 1779, when another committee, composed of Messrs. Lovell of Massachusetts, Scott of Virginia, and Houstoun of Georgia, was appointed to make another device.
They suggested a design four inches in diameter, one side of which should be composed of a shield with thirteen diagonal red and white stripes.
This shield was supported on one side by a warrior, holding a sword, and on the other by the figure of Peace bearing an olive branch.
The crest was a radiant constellation of thirteen States; motto, ” Bello vel Pace” — “For War or Peace”; and the legend, “Seal of the United States.”
On the reverse, the figure of Liberty seated in a chair, holding the staff and cap. Motto, “Semper” — “Forever,” and, underneath, ” MDCCLXXVI.”
This device met with the same neglect at the hands of Congress as the former, and the matter remained in abeyance until 1782, when another committee was appointed.
They reported substantially the same device as the former committee, but this being still unsatisfactory, Congress, on the third day of June, 1782, referred the whole matter to its secretary, Charles Thomson.
He in turn procured several devices, but they met with no better fate than their predecessors, and after vainly trying to perfect a seal which should meet the approval of Congress, Thomson received from John Adams, then in London, an exceedingly simple and appropriate device which was suggested by Sir John Prestwich, a baronet of the west of England, who was an accomplished antiquarian and a warm friend of America.
It consisted of an escutcheon bearing thirteen perpendicular stripes, alternate red and white, with the chief blue and spangled with thirteen stars.
And to give it greater consequence, he proposed to place the escutcheon on the breast of an American eagle, displayed, without supporters, as emblematic of self-reliance.
This device met with universal approval, in and out of Congress, and was adopted in 1782.
It remains to this day the Great Seal of the United States, unchanged in the slightest degree from the day of its adoption.
Stripped of heraldic technicalities, it may be described as follows:
An escutcheon of thirteen perpendicular stripes, alternate red and white; a blue field; this escutcheon, on the breast of an American eagle, displayed, holding in its right talon an olive branch, and in its left a bundle of thirteen arrows; in its beak a scroll inscribed with the motto, “E Pluribus Unum.”
For the crest over the head of the eagle, which appears above the escutcheon, a golden glory breaking through a cloud and surrounding thirteen stars forming a constellation of white stars on a blue field.
The reverse is an unfinished pyramid. In the zenith is an eye in a triangle surrounded with a glory.
Over the eye are the words, ” Annuit coeptis” — which may be freely translated as ” God has favored the undertaking.”
On the base of the pyramid are the letters in Roman numerals, MDCCLXXVI, and underneath is the motto, ” Novus ordo seclorum ” — “A new order of the ages,” denoting that a new order of things had commenced in the Western Hemi sphere.
Thus, after six years of fruitless effort, a very simple seal was adopted and yet remains the arms of the United States.
The reverse of the One Dollar Currency Note shows with an image of a woman using the embossing machine to affix the Great Seal to an official government document, circa 1938.