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Third Great Seal Committee – May 1782

A third committee was formed on May 4, 1782, as peace talks were underway in Paris between the United States and Britain. America would soon need a Great Seal to properly ratify a peace treaty.

The committee consisted of chairman Arthur Middleton and John Rutledge (both of South Carolina) plus Elias Boudinot (New Jersey). Virginia's Arthur Lee seems to have replaced Rutledge early on. As with previous committees, they sought a consultant and were referred to William Barton.

Only 28 years old, Barton had studied heraldry in England. Right away, he came up with a design that was far too complex for purposes of a seal. A few days later, he offered a second design, which the committee submitted to Congress on May 9, 1782. Below is Barton's sketch of it.

Barton's drawing of his design for the front of the Great Seal

The shield is supported on its right by the "Genius of the American Confederated Republic" represented by a maiden, and on its left by an American warrior. At the top is an eagle and on the pillar in the shield is a "Phoenix in Flames*."

Upper motto: "In Vindiciam Libertatis" ([In Defense of Liberty).
Lower motto: "Virtus sola invicta" (Only virtue unconquered).

For the reverse side Barton suggested a pyramid of thirteen steps with a radiant eye above it. His sketch (below left) was undoubtedly influenced by the pyramid on the $50 Continental Currency note (belwo right) designed in 1778 by Francis Hopkinson, the heraldry consultant and artist on the second Great Seal committee (1780).

Barton's reverse of Great Seal Continental Currency $50 note (detail)

Upper motto: "Deo Favente" – With God's Favor (lit., God Favoring)
Lower motto: "Perennis" – Everlasting (lit., Through the years)

Read Barton's description of his complex design – an excellent example of how the science of heraldry precisely describes an image.

Once again, Congress was not impressed and a month later turned over Barton's design – along with the other two committee designs – to Charles Thomson, whom they counted on to come up with a Great Seal worthy of their victorious new nation.

Barton said, "the Dove (perched on the right Hand of the Genius of America) is emblematical of Innocence and Virtue." And... the "Pyramid signifies Strength & Duration."

Phoenix on South Carolina's five-shillings note (1778) *He said, "the Phoenix is emblematical of the expiring Liberty of Britain, revived by her Descendants, in America." Earlier there had been a mythical phoenix on South Carolina's five-shillings note (left) issued in April 1778.

(Barton used another bird, a rooster, at the top of his first design which was even more complex than the one suggested by the third committee.)

In 1788, Barton wrote a letter to George Washington about the importance of heraldry. In his reply to Barton, Washington expressed concern about the anti-federalist faction hostile to the new Constitution.

Historical content is based on the official history of the Great Seal.
Copyright ©2014 by John D. MacArthur.