The Great Seal and
The National Mottos
of the United States of America


This page concentrates on the history of the Great Seal of the United States and the National Motto of the United States (In God We Trust).

The Great Seal of the United States of America

On July 4, 1776 the Continental Congress set a committee to work to design a national seal. The task was a monumental one since the feeling was that it reflected the Founding Fathers' beliefs, values and sovereignty of the new Nation. Original designs varied widely. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson proposed a design representing Moses crossing the Red Sea, with Pharaoh in hot pursuit. It included the motto: 'Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God'. The task was not complete until the current design was approved by Congress on June 20, 1782.

The device or design on the obverse (front) of the Great Seal is the coat of arms (emblem) of the United States. Strictly speaking without the crest (constellation of stars). Used apart from the seal for a number of official government purposes. The coat of arms is the symbol and badge of the United States Government.

The Great Seal of the United States, both obverse and reverse, is pictured on the back of the $1 bill.

The seal is a heraldic device, and as such, each element has a specific meaning.

Obverse (Front)

The American bald eagle is prominently featured supporting a shield composed of 13 red and white stripes (pales) representing the Thirteen Original states with a blue bar (chief) uniting the shield and representing Congress. The shield is born on the breast of the eagle without any other supporters to denote that the United States ought to rely on their own virtue. The motto of the United States E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one) is emblazoned on the scroll held in the eagle's beak and refers to this union. The olive branch (dexter talon) and 13 arrows (sinister talon) grasped by the eagle allude to peace and war, powers solely vested in the Congress, and the constellation of stars (crest), breaking through a cloud symbolizes the new Nation taking its place among the sovereign powers. The eagle faces right, which is proper in heraldry.

The colors have specific meanings. The colors red, white and blue did not have a meaning for the flag when adopted in 1777, but do have meaning in the seal.

  • white -- purity and innocence
  • red -- hardiness and valor
  • blue - color of the Chief represents vigilance, perseverance and justice

Reverse (Back)

The unfinished pyramid signifies strength and duration: The eye over it and the motto, Annuit Coeptis (He, [God,] has favored our undertakings), allude to the many interventions of Providence in favor of the American cause. The Roman numerals below are the date of the Declaration of Independence. The words under it, novus Ordo Seclorum (a new order of the ages), signify the beginning of the new American era beginning in 1776.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Great Seal

Where is the Great Seal stored?

The Great Seal (obverse only) is used to emboss the design upon international Treaties and other official U.S. Government documents. Used 2-3,000 times a year, the die, counter die, press and cabinet in which they are housed are located in the Exhibit Hall of the Department of State inside a locked glass enclosure. An officer from the Department's Presidential Appointments Staff does the actual sealing of documents after the Secretary of State has countersigned the President's signature.

Why is the seal called 'great'?

The seal is called 'great' by tradition. A 'great' seal is used to represent the government of a country. In the case of the United States, it is used to authenticate the President's signature on certain state documents. Some countries, such as in the case of the British privy seal, have 'lesser' seals that are used to signify the royal family. The United States does not use the concept of a 'lesser' seal, however it still uses the word 'great' in the title of the Great Seal.

Has the Eagle always faced the olive branch?

Yes, since the first die was cast, the eagle has always faced right and has held the olive branch in its right talon.

Presidential flags, seals (and coats of arms) showed the eagle facing left, towards the arrows, until 1945 when President Truman changed a number of items in the presidential flag and seal [Executive Order 9646].One of the changes was to have the eagle face right, towards the olive branch "This new flag faces the eagle toward the staff," Truman explained, "which is looking to the front all the time when you are on the march, and also has him looking at the olive branch for peace, instead of the arrows for war ... President Truman meant the shift in the eagle's gaze to be seen as symbolic of a nation both on the march and dedicated to peace. It has remained that way ever since.

Contrary to a popular myth, the eagle in the Presidential seal does not flip his gaze during times of war. Although when Truman and Churchill were looking at the new symbol on a train car, Churchill remarked that he thought the eagle's head should be on a swivel. That may be the origin of the myth. In any case, it is incorrect. The arrows and olive branches are always held in the same claws.

Is it true that Benjamin Franklin really wanted the turkey as the national symbol?

Benjamin Franklin's idea for a coat of arms was of Moses crossing the Red Sea (see above), however almost eight years after his service on the seal committee, and after a design for the seal had been adopted and put into use, Franklin expressed his distaste for the bald eagle as the symbol of the country to a letter to his daughter in 1784. Franklin was probably not writing seriously, as he had promptly used the Great Seal device, with the eagle, in two publications printed on his press at Passy in 1783. But the story has been widely disseminated.

Did freemasonry influence the Great Seal designs?

Because membership records for the Revolutionary period are scattered and imperfect, it is not possible to answer this with complete certainty. There is no evidence that the final designers of the Great Seal, Charles Thomson or Philadelphia William Barton, were Masons. It is more likely that the seal designers of the Great Seal and the Masons took their symbols from parallel sources.

The National Mottos

In God We Trust

The national motto originated with Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase during the Civil War. Prompted by a letter from Rev. M. R. Watkinson, of Ridleyville, Pennsylvania asking for a recognition of "the Almighty God in some form in our coins.", Chase requested Congress to pass a law changing the composition of the 2-cent piece to include the motto "In God we trust". The law as passed on April 22, 1864. Eventually the motto appeared on many U.S. coins and currencies.

When the double eagle and eagle of new design appeared in 1907, it was soon discovered that the motto had been omitted. In response to a general demand, Congress ordered it restored, and the act of May 18, 1908, made mandatory its appearance upon all coins which it had heretofore appeared. The act approved July 11, 1955, makes appearance of the motto "In God we trust" mandatory upon all coins of the United States. (69 Stat. 290. 31 U.S. Code 324a)

On July 30, 1956 a law was passed stating that "the national motto of the United States is hereby declared to be 'In God we trust'." (70 Stat. 732. 36 U.S. Code 186). The House Judiciary Committee recognized that the phrase E Pluribus Unum had also received wide usage in the United States, and the joint resolution did not repeal or prohibit its use as a national motto. In 1963 the Department of State took the following position: "'In God we trust'" is the motto of the United States. It seems to the Department, nevertheless, that there is ample basis both in history and in law for calling 'E Pluribus Unum' a motto of the United States." The Congress has used both.

E Pluribus Unum

E Pluribus Unum means "out of many, one". It comes from a popular publication during revolutionary times entitled Gentleman's Magazine which carried that legend upon the title page. The magazine was well known to literate Americans of the time. The Gentleman's Magazine obtained the legend from an earlier and long out of print publication called the Gentleman's Journal which used the motto in 1692. And perhaps ultimately to Virgil, St. Augustine or Horace. It was first used extensively in the United States only after it was introduced on the Great Seal.

Frequently Asked Questions about the National Mottos

Have federal court cases cast doubt on the constitutionality of the motto "In God we trust"?

The federal courts have held that the motto symbolizes the historical role of religion in our society, Lynch, 465 U.S. at 676, formalizes our medium of exchange, see O'Hair v. Blumenthal, 462 F. Supp. 19, 20 (W.D. Tex.), aff'd sub nom. O'Hair v. Murray, 588 F.2d 1144 (5th Cir. 1978) (per curiam), and cert. denied, 442 U.S.930 (1979), fosters patriotism, see Aronow v. United States, 432 F.2d 242, 243 (9th Cir. 1970), and expresses confidence in the future, Lynch, 465 U.S. at 692-93 (O'Connor, J., concurring). The motto's primary effect is not to advance religion; instead, it is a form of "ceremonial deism" which through historical usage and ubiquity cannot be reasonably understood to convey government approval of religious belief. Allegheny, 492 U.S. at 625 (O'Connor, J., concurring); Lynch, 465 U.S. at 693 (O'Connor, J., concurring); id. at 716 (Brennan, J., dissenting). Finally, the motto does not create an intimate relationship of the type that suggests unconstitutional entanglement of church and state. O'Hair, 462 F. Supp. at 20. "After making [inquiries], we find that a reasonable observer, aware of the purpose, context, and history of the phrase "In God we trust," would not consider its use or its reproduction on U.S. currency to be an endorsement of religion. (Gaylor vs USA, 10th Cir. 1996)

References

  • Our Flag, Joint Committee on Printing, United States Congress, 1989
  • The Eagle and the Shield, Department of State, 1976
  • The Great Seal of the United States, Dept. of State publication, 1980.
  • Presidential Seal Speaks of Peace, Newsday. 6 January 1995.
  • Truman, David McCullough, New York: Touchstone Books, 1993.

Created by: Bill Nelson, Venturing Committee Chairman, Grand Canyon Council, Boy Scouts of America. Please let me know of any additions or corrections.


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