First Great Seal Committee July/August 1776
"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.
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.
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,
"The shield has six Quarters... pointing out the Countries from which these States have been peopled."
The shield is bordered with the initials for "each of the thirteen independent States of America."
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."
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.
The Reverse Side of the Great Seal
"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."
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.
Historical content is based on the official history of the Great Seal.
Copyright ©2014 by John D. MacArthur.