The Great Seal of the United States: History and Symbolism

The Great Seal of the United States is a symbol that represents the nation’s identity, values, and history. Its intricate design and rich symbolism have intrigued people for centuries. In this article, we will explore the origins and meaning of the Great Seal, as well as the changes it has undergone over time. From the first committee that was tasked with creating the seal to the various symbols that make up its design, we will delve into the history of this iconic emblem. Join us as we unravel the mysteries behind one of the most recognizable symbols of the United States.

The Origins of the Great Seal

The Origins Of The Great Seal
The Great Seal of the United States is a symbol of American identity, pride, and tradition. The origins of the Great Seal date back to a committee established on July 4th, 1776, only hours after the Declaration of Independence was ratified. The committee tasked with designing a seal consisted of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. The initial design was rejected, and a second committee was formed in 1782, which included the likes of Charles Thomson and William Barton. The final design of the Great Seal features a bald eagle holding arrows and an olive branch in its talons, a shield with thirteen stripes and stars, and a Latin motto “E Pluribus Unum” (“Out of many, one”). The seal’s design reflects the United States’ ideals of strength, resilience, and peace. To this day, the Great Seal remains a powerful symbol of American culture and heritage.

The First Committee

In 1776, the Continental Congress appointed the first committee to create a seal for the new United States. The committee consisted of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Each member proposed a design that was promptly rejected.

Benjamin Franklin’s design featured the biblical story of Moses dividing the Red Sea and the Latin phrase “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God”. The design was considered too complicated and not easily recognizable.

John Adams proposed a design with Hercules as the central figure, symbolizing vigilance along with the Latin phrase “There is a New Order of the Ages”. However, this design was also seen as too complicated and difficult to understand.

Thomas Jefferson’s proposal was a design that depicted the children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The Latin phrase “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God” surrounded the image. This design was also rejected for being too complex.

Despite their efforts, the first committee failed to create a seal that met the standards of both the Continental Congress and the public. The committee was dissolved, and a new committee was formed in 1782 to create a new design for the Great Seal.

Internal link: National symbols and their evolution

The Second Committee

The Second Committee was appointed by the Continental Congress in 1782. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were the members who were responsible for designing the Great Seal. They prepared a detailed report and presented it to the Congress on May 4, 1782. The report included a description and meaning of the proposed designs for the obverse and the reverse of the seal. These designs were inspired by the ideas of classical antiquity and the beliefs of the Enlightenment.

The obverse design proposal was a portrayal of an American Bald Eagle. The eagle was to be displayed with its wings spread wide, holding in its talons a banner with the motto “E Pluribus Unum” (out of many, one). The eagle’s head was to be turned towards the banner. The report explained that the eagle symbolizes power and strength, and the motto represents the unification of the diverse states into a single nation.

The reverse design proposal was a depiction of the biblical story of the parting of the Red Sea. This image was meant to represent the idea of God’s intervention in the American Revolution. This design also included several symbols, such as an unfinished pyramid, an eye within a triangle, and a scroll with the Latin phrase “Novus Ordo Seclorum” (a new order of the ages). The pyramid represented strength and durability, while the eye within a triangle symbolized God’s omniscience. The scroll was an invitation to look to the future and strive for greatness, while also acknowledging the new beginning of the nation.

The Congress approved both designs, with only slight modifications. The eagle was changed to face the viewer’s left side, symbolizing the country’s preference for peace. The colors and details of the designs were also changed to make them more visually appealing.

The Second Committee made significant contributions to designing the Great Seal, forever enshrining the principles of unity, strength, and divine intervention in United States history.

Designing the Great Seal

The design of the Great Seal of the United States was a long and involved process, and its symbolism reflects the values and aspirations of the nation. The seal’s design was divided into two sides: the obverse, which depicts an American Bald Eagle and the shield of the United States, and the reverse, which shows a pyramid and an eye within a triangle. The obverse was designed first by the first committee in 1776, featuring the eagle with a shield and motto. The reverse was designed later by the second committee, which drew on ideas from historical and mythological sources. The pyramid was inspired by the ancient Egyptian pyramids and symbolizes strength and durability, while the eye represents divine guidance. The text surrounding the pyramid, “Annuit Coeptis,” means “He approves our undertakings” in Latin. The reverse’s text, “Novus Ordo Seclorum,” means “New Order of the Ages” and reflects America’s newly-won independence. The seals’ many symbols and meanings make it a fascinating representation of the history and identity of the United States.

The Obverse

The obverse of the Great Seal depicts the American eagle with its wings outstretched. The eagle holds thirteen arrows in its left talon, symbolizing the country’s readiness for war, and an olive branch with thirteen leaves and thirteen olives in its right talon, symbolizing the desire for peace. The eagle’s head faces towards the olive branch, indicating that the United States of America will always seek for peace despite being ready for war.

Behind the eagle is a circular design, consisting of clouds and thirteen stars on a blue field. The clouds represent the beginnings of the new nation, as it emerges from colonial status, and the stars symbolize the thirteen original colonies of the United States. The blue field represents the Union, which is also part of the national flag.

Around the edge of the design are the words “Seal of the United States” and the Latin motto “E pluribus unum”, which means “out of many, one”. This motto represents the unity of the thirteen colonies, which came together to form one nation.

It’s important to note that the bald eagle is the national symbol of the United States, and its use in the Great Seal is significant. The eagle has been used as a symbol of American strength and freedom since the country’s earliest days. To learn more about the history and symbolism of the bald eagle as a national symbol, you can check out the history of the bald eagle as a national symbol.

The Reverse

The Reverse of the Great Seal of the United States is just as significant as its Obverse. It features the familiar American Bald Eagle, but instead of clenching arrows and an olive branch in its talons, it holds a bundle of thirteen arrows as well as an olive branch with thirteen leaves. The eagle faces towards the olive branch, symbolizing the country’s desire for peace, but is prepared to defend itself if needed, hence the arrows.

In addition to the eagle, there is a triangular pyramid with thirteen layers on the reverse side. The pyramid represents strength and durability, while the thirteen layers are meant to represent the original thirteen colonies that formed the United States. The pyramid is unfinished, with the top portion missing. Above the pyramid’s top, we see the Eye of Providence, a powerful Masonic symbol. It is an eye within a triangle and is widely interpreted as a spiritual symbol representing God’s watchful eye over mankind.

The Reverse side of the Great Seal was designed to be a reminder to the people of the United States of their past struggles and their continued strength as a country. The use of thirteen leaves, thirteen arrows, and thirteen layers shows that the United States has a rich and complex history. The eagle’s position with the olive branch in mind shows the country’s desire for peace, while the arrows indicate that the country can and will defend itself fiercely if need be.

It is interesting to note that constructing the Great Seal of the United States was a prolonged and difficult process that lasted almost six years. Many different designs were considered before the final version was decided upon. Today, the Great Seal remains an essential symbol of American history and culture. Its Obverse and Reverse sides, both with rich symbolism, remind us of our past struggles, achievements, and aspirations for the future.

For more information about national symbols and their meanings, check out national-symbols-cultural-identity.

Symbolism of the Great Seal

Symbolism Of The Great Seal
The Great Seal of the United States holds significant symbolic meanings that represent the country’s values and identity. At the center of the Seal is the American Bald Eagle, which symbolizes courage, strength, and freedom. The eagle holds a shield with thirteen stripes, representing the thirteen original states of the Union, and a banner in its beak with the motto “E Pluribus Unum,” meaning “Out of Many, One.” On one talon, the eagle grasps an olive branch, symbolizing peace, and on the other talon, it holds a bundle of arrows, representing strength in war. Additionally, the unfinished pyramid with the Eye of Providence above it, situated on the reverse side of the Seal, denotes the country’s future potential and godly guidance. All of these symbols come together to form a rich and layered representation of the United States’ values and aspirations. If you’re interested in exploring more national symbols, take a look at this comparison between national flowers at /national-flowers-comparison/.

The American Bald Eagle

The American Bald Eagle is a majestic bird that represents the United States of America. It was chosen to be the centerpiece of the Great Seal due to its strength, power, and symbolic value. The bald eagle is an excellent hunter, with its keen eyesight and powerful wings allowing it to soar through the air and hunt for prey. These characteristics are seen as representative of the strength and power of the American people.

In addition to its physical characteristics, the bald eagle also has a rich symbolic history. Its association with the United States dates back to the country’s founding, when it was chosen to be the national bird. The bald eagle has come to represent freedom, independence, and courage.

On the Great Seal of the United States, the bald eagle is featured prominently on the obverse side. The eagle holds an olive branch in one talon, and a bundle of arrows in the other. This is meant to symbolize the country’s desire for peace, but also its willingness to defend itself when necessary.

The bald eagle is also featured prominently on the official seal of many government agencies and departments. This is meant to not only represent the United States, but also the specific agency or department that it represents.

The American Bald Eagle is an important symbol of the United States, representing the country’s strength, power, freedom, and courage. Its inclusion on the Great Seal of the United States is a testament to its significance in American culture and history.

Internal link: If you’re interested in learning about other national symbols of the United States, check out our article on National Animals Representing Identity.

The Shield

The shield on the Great Seal of the United States is a significant symbol that represents the country’s strength and independence. It has thirteen stripes, which are representative of the thirteen original colonies that united to form the United States. The top portion of the shield is colored blue, which symbolizes vigor and resolution. It is also representative of the Chief, an honored and respected position in Native American culture.

The shield on the Great Seal is divided into sections, with each section having its own symbolic meaning. The red and white stripes on the shield represent valor and purity, respectively. The stripes alternate to create a pattern that covers the entire shield.

The shield is also adorned with horizontal blue bars, which signify the Union. There are thirteen blue stars above the eagle, which represent the thirteen original colonies once again. The shield is supported by an American bald eagle, which is clutching an olive branch and a bundle of thirteen arrows.

The shield on the Great Seal represents the strength and resilience of the United States. It is a powerful reminder of the country’s heritage and the ideals that it was founded upon. The shield stands as a symbol of hope and progress for all Americans.

If you want to know more about national coat of arms designs and their meanings, you can check out this article. You can also explore more about flags and national symbols in this resource or uncover the hidden meanings of national flags in this article. Additionally, you can learn more about the olive branch as a symbol of peace in this read.

The Olive Branch and Arrows

The olive branch and arrows in the talons of the Great Seal’s American Bald Eagle represent the delicate balance between peace and war. The eagle clutches an olive branch in its right talon, which symbolizes the desire for peace, while holding a bundle of arrows in its left talon, which represents the potential for war. The olive branch has long been a symbol of peace, dating back to ancient Greece, where it was a prize awarded to the winners of athletic competitions.

In the Bible, the olive branch is referenced as a sign of hope and is used in the story of Noah’s Ark to indicate that the flood waters had receded. The arrows in the eagle’s left talon also have significant historical connotations. In ancient Rome, a bundle of arrows, known as a fasci, was a symbol of power and authority. It was also a reference to the story of the Roman Republic, in which an old man gave his sons a bundle of sticks to break, symbolizing the strength of unity and the weakness of division.

The combination of the olive branch and arrows in the Great Seal’s design represents the belief that peace is the ideal state, but the potential for war must always be acknowledged and prepared for. The United States has used military force throughout its history to protect its interests and defend its citizens. However, the nation has also consistently sought diplomatic solutions to conflicts and prioritizes diplomacy over military action whenever possible.

The concept of balancing peace and war is an ongoing challenge for nations around the world. The olive branch and arrows in the Great Seal’s design serve as a reminder of this challenge and of the importance of seeking peaceful solutions to conflicts. By including these symbols in the Great Seal, the Founding Fathers ensured that the nation’s commitment to peace would be visible to all who saw the emblem, including Americans and foreign friends and foes alike.

The Great Pyramid

The Great Pyramid, also known as the Pyramid of Cheops or the Pyramid of Khufu, is one of the most well-known symbols featured on the Great Seal of the United States. This ancient Egyptian construction is believed to have been built around 2560 BCE and stood as the tallest man-made structure on the planet for over 3,800 years.

But why did the designers of the Great Seal include the Great Pyramid in its design? It is speculated that the Great Pyramid represents strength and durability, as well as the idea of eternity. The pyramid shape, with its sturdy base and gradually sloping sides, has been used throughout history as a symbol of stability and permanence.

Another reason for including the Great Pyramid is its connection to ancient mysteries and esoteric knowledge. The pyramid has long been associated with mysticism and the occult, and its inclusion on the Great Seal has led some to believe that there are hidden meanings and messages associated with the Seal as a whole.

There are many theories about the symbolism of the Great Pyramid on the Great Seal, some of which include its representation of the Egyptian god Osiris or its connection to the concept of world domination. However, the most commonly accepted explanation is that the Great Pyramid represents the idea of a “new order of the ages” – a term that is featured prominently on the Seal’s design.

Regardless of its true meaning, the inclusion of the Great Pyramid on the Great Seal has made it a powerful and enduring symbol for the United States, and one that continues to capture the collective imagination of people all around the world.

Changing Symbols

The Great Seal of the United States has undergone several changes since its inception in 1782. Perhaps the most significant change came in 1956 when the Congress passed a resolution stating that the national motto “In God We Trust” should be printed on all currency. This motto was then added to the Great Seal in 1957. Another change that occurred in 1945 was the redesign of the eagle on the obverse, which now faces the olive branch of peace instead of the arrows of war. There have also been several alternate versions of the seal proposed throughout history, including one with a phoenix instead of an eagle and another with George Washington instead of the eagle. Despite these changes, the Great Seal remains a powerful symbol of American identity and values.

Adopting a New Motto

During the Civil War, there was a group of people called the Union League who pushed for a change in the national motto of the United States, “E Pluribus Unum” meaning “out of many, one”. They believed that this phrase did not adequately reflect the country’s dedication to God and religious values. They proposed that the motto be changed to “In God We Trust”.

The idea of adopting a new motto gained momentum, and in 1863, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase received a letter from the Reverend M.R. Watkinson, who suggested the new motto, “In God We Trust”. Chase agreed with the suggestion and directed that it be put on all U.S coins.

In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a law that made “In God We Trust” the official motto of the United States, replacing “E Pluribus Unum”. Today, “In God We Trust” continues to be a source of controversy, with debates about its constitutionality and whether it accurately reflects the diversity and values of the American people. Despite this, the motto remains a key symbol of American identity, printed on all currency and official documents, and invoked by politicians and citizens alike.

Changing the Eagle’s Design

In 1841, the design of the eagle on the Great Seal was again revised by Charles Thomson, a former Secretary of Congress. He added an olive branch in the eagle’s right talon and arrows in its left to represent peace and war, respectively. The eagle was also given a more natural appearance, with its wings outstretched and its head turned towards the olive branch. This new design was officially adopted by Congress on March 3, 1841.

However, it wasn’t until 1902 that a standardized eagle design was established for use on all official government seals. This design featured the eagle facing towards its right with its wings level, instead of outstretched, and its head turned towards the olive branch. The eagle’s beak was also given a more curved appearance, and its feathers were more intricately detailed.

In 1945, President Harry Truman approved a further modification to the eagle’s design. The eagle was made to face towards its left, as it traditionally symbolizes peace, and its head was once again turned towards the olive branch in its right talon. The eagle was also given a more powerful and imposing appearance, with its wings spread wide and its talons gripping tightly onto the olive branch and arrows.

Today, the eagle design on the Great Seal remains largely the same as it was in 1945, with only minor modifications made for clarity and consistency across various government seals. Despite these changes, the symbolism of the eagle as a powerful and majestic bird of prey, representing the strength and freedom of the United States, remains unchanged.

Alternate Versions of the Seal

Did you know that there have been numerous alternate versions of the Great Seal of the United States? While the familiar seal with the American bald eagle holding a bundle of arrows and an olive branch is the most commonly recognized version, there have been many proposed designs and variations over the years.

In 1841, a proposal was made to include a figure of Liberty on the Seal instead of the eagle. The design was never accepted, but it did prompt the creation of several versions featuring Lady Liberty.

During President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, a series of alternate designs were created by the U.S. State Department to feature on special occasions, such as commemorating the Roosevelt’s visit to South America. The designs included a version with a bald eagle combined with the flags of North and South America. Another version features the eagle perched atop a globe.

In 1976, during the United States Bicentennial celebrations, a special bicentennial seal was created. It featured a patriotic design with the year “1776” emblazoned in gold above an eagle holding a scroll reading “E Pluribus Unum.”

More recently, in 2016, a proposed alternate version of the Seal featuring an eagle that was designed to look more aggressive drew controversy. The design featured the eagle with its wings spread and its talons extended, holding a series of arrows.

While the current version of the Great Seal of the United States remains the standard design, it is interesting to see all the creative variations and proposals that have been suggested over the years. These alternate versions give us a glimpse into the evolution of American symbols and the importance of continually reevaluating and renewing our national identity.


In conclusion, the Great Seal of the United States is a fascinating symbol that reflects the country’s values and aspirations. From its origins with the First and Second Committees, to the final design featuring the American Bald Eagle, the Shield, and the Great Pyramid, the symbolism of the seal is both intricate and powerful.

Over time, the symbols on the seal have changed, reflecting the evolving values and priorities of the country. The adoption of a new motto, the changing of the eagle’s design, and the creation of alternate versions of the seal all demonstrate this evolution.

Despite these changes, the Great Seal remains an enduring symbol of American identity and values. Its use on everything from currency to official documents underscores its significance in the national consciousness. The attention to detail and symbolism in the seal are a testament to the care and consideration that went into its creation.

Overall, the Great Seal of the United States is a remarkable symbol that reflects the country’s rich history and values. Its intricate symbolism and enduring legacy make it a powerful reminder of the ideals that have shaped America since its inception.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Great Seal of the United States?

The Great Seal of the United States is the official symbol of the U.S. government. It is used on official documents, such as treaties, executive orders, and proclamations.

Who created the Great Seal of the United States?

The design of the Great Seal was created by a committee of founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. The final design was made in 1782 by Charles Thomson, the Secretary of Congress.

Why was the Great Seal created?

The Great Seal was created to signify the sovereignty of the United States and to be used as a symbol of the new nation’s power and authority.

What is on the Obverse of the Great Seal?

The Obverse of the Great Seal features an American Bald Eagle holding a shield with 13 stripes in one talon, and an olive branch in the other. Above the eagle’s head is a ribbon with the motto “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of many, one) and a constellation of 13 stars.

What is on the Reverse of the Great Seal?

The Reverse of the Great Seal features a pyramid with an eye above it, surrounded by the Latin words “Annuit Coeptis” (He has favored our undertakings) and “Novus Ordo Seclorum” (A new order of the ages).

What is the significance of the American Bald Eagle in the Great Seal?

The American Bald Eagle is a symbol of freedom, strength, and independence. It was chosen as the national bird of the United States in 1782.

What does the Shield in the Great Seal represent?

The Shield in the Great Seal represents the protection provided by the national government for the country and its people.

What do the Olive Branch and Arrows in the Great Seal represent?

The Olive Branch represents peace, while the Arrows represent the power and determination to defend the nation.

What is the meaning of the Great Pyramid in the Great Seal?

The Great Pyramid is a symbol of strength and duration. It represents the idea that a strong, enduring government must be built on a solid foundation.

Has the design of the Great Seal ever been changed?

Yes, the design of the Great Seal has undergone several changes over the years, including the adoption of a new motto and changes to the design of the eagle.


Leave a Comment