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Design Process
 1st Committee
   Benjamin Franklin
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   Francis Hopkinson
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   Charles Thomson
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First Great Seal Committee – July/August 1776

The World of Franklin & Jefferson, 1976 exhibit by Charles & Ray Eames "Resolved, That Dr. Franklin, Mr. J. Adams and Mr. Jefferson, be a committee, to bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America." – July 4, 1776, Journals of Continental Congress

For the design team, Congress chose three of the five men who were on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. Although these distinguished committee members were among the ablest minds in the new nation, they had little knowledge of heraldry. To help convey their vision, they chose the artist Pierre Eugène Du Simitière to work with them.

Skilled in portraiture and heraldry (the state seals of Delaware and New Jersey are his designs), Du Simitière was also an avid collector of all things American and founded the first history museum in the United States.

The four men consulted among themselves between July 4 and August 13, then each brought before the committee a suggestion for the design of the Great Seal.

Benjamin Franklin's proposal is preserved in a note of his own handwriting:

"Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity.

"Motto, Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God."

Thomas Jefferson also suggested allegorical scenes. For the front of the seal: children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. For the reverse: Hengist and Horsa, the two brothers who were the legendary leaders of the first Anglo-Saxon settlers in Britain.

John Adams chose the allegorical painting known as the "Judgment of Hercules" where the young Hercules must choose to travel either on the flowery path of self-indulgence or ascend the rugged, uphill way of duty to others and honor to himself.

Du Simitière designed a proper heraldic seal,
which he described as follows
:

"The shield has six Quarters... pointing out the Countries from which these States have been peopled."

Three British:
    Rose for England, Thistle for Scotland, Harp for Ireland

Three European:
    Fleur-de-lis for France, Belgic Lion for Holland,
    Imperial (two-headed) Eagle for Germany

The shield is bordered with the initials for "each of the thirteen independent States of America."

"Crest  The Eye of Providence in a radiant Triangle whose Glory extends over the Shield and beyond the Figures."

"Motto  "E PLURIBUS UNUM."

Du Simitière's preliminary design
Du Simitière's original (and restored) sketch of his preliminary design

    Supporting the Shield (preliminary design)
  • On the shield's right side: "The Goddess of Liberty in a corslet of armour alluding to the present Times, holding in her right hand the Spear & Cap, with her left on an anchor, emblem of Hope."

  • On shield's left side: "Senester, an American Soldier, compleatly accoutred in his hunting Shirt and trowsers, with his tomahawk, powder horn, pouch &c. holding with his left hand his rifle gun rested, and the Shield of the States with his right."

In Du Simitière's second design (below) – the one submitted to Congress – the Soldier was replaced with the Goddess of Justice. Also, the anchor was removed, so the Goddess of Liberty's left hand is "supporting the Shield of the States."

Lossing realization (1856) of Du Simitiere's sketch

The above realization drawn in 1856 by Benson J. Lossing has an error. The initials of the states are supposed to surround the shield, not the seal, as Lossing showed. He also drew the below realization of the committee's reverse side.

Lossing realization (1856) of Du Simitiere's sketch

The Reverse Side of the Great Seal
(Jefferson's edit of Franklin's suggestion)

"Pharaoh sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his head and a Sword in his hand, passing through the divided Waters of the Red Sea in Pursuit of the Israelites: Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the 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."

Motto: "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God."

On August 20, 1776, the same day Congress received the committee's report, it was "Ordered, To lie on the table." In other words, Congress was unimpressed by their design.

Two of its design elements, however, were chosen for the final Great Seal: the eye of Providence and the motto E Pluribus Unum.

Also, some of the meaning of Franklin's motto is seen in the one eventually used above the radiant eye on the reverse side of the Great Seal: Annuit Coeptis (Providence has Favored Our Undertakings).



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