The Mystery of George Washington
and the Dorsett Seal
One day in early June 1894 a young man named Palemon Howard Dorsett presented himself at the Department of State and sought out Gaillard Hunt, who recently wrote a brochure titled The Seal of the United States. Dorsett showed Hunt a metal die incised with the arms of the United States that had been handed down in his family from a kinsman who had received it from a nephew of George Washington.
Hunt examined the die and noted: "This seal is almost identical with the first seal, cut in 1782... It is cut on the same metal and no other seal is as much like the first seal... It is fair to presume that this seal is contemporaneous with the seal of 1782." (shown above).
Hunt took no further interest in the matter. Forty-two years later in 1936, Dorsett wrote a letter to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, saying:
"This Seal has been in the possession of the Dorsett family for more than a century. From earliest childhood I recall innumerable occasions when the Seal was under discussion, that my parents invariably stated that it was given to Jim Starr, a nephew of Grandmother Winchester, on my mother's side, by a nephew of General Washington, and that the two young men were very warm personal friends."
The State Department's Historical Adviser Hunter Miller took a look at Mr. Dorsett's die. Examination showed it to be 2 5/16 inches in diameter and 3/8 of an inch thick, its back a solid flat surface, with no handle or place for attaching one and no evident provision for fixing it in a press.
On April 17, 1936, the Division of Chemistry of the Bureau of Standards analyzed a "whisker" of metal taken from the die and reported it to be of "copper and tin" that is, bronze.
Comparison of an impression from the Dorsett seal with one from the Great Seal die of 1782 reveals some striking resemblances.
The two are of exactly the same diameter; the encircling ornamental borders are similar; and the general arrangement of the device on the Dorsett seal shows unmistakably that it was copied from that of the seal of 1782. There are differences, however, and at least some of them are improvements.
The engraving of the Dorsett seal is more spirited and vigorous. The eagle is a sturdier and livelier bird; its wings are more widely extended more like those of the eagle on the present Great Seal; its neck and legs are more fully developed; its feathering is more detailed; and the tail shows nine instead of seven feathers anticipating the nine of the present Great Seal.
The Dorsett die differs from the 1782 die in one conspicuous way. The olive branch and bundle of arrows are transposed, so the eagle faces the arrows in its right talon. In this respect it departs from the specifications of the resolution of Congress of June 20, 1782.
It can be said with certainty that at no time was that seal ever used as the Great Seal of the United States. In fact, no impression from the Dorsett seal die has been found anywhere. Searches of printed sources of various kinds, including legislative records, have failed to reveal any further information.
Lending credence to the Dorsett story is "An Inventory of Articles at Mount Vernon" prepared shortly after Washington's death in 1799. It includes "In the Iron Chest... 1 Brass engraving of the Arms of the U. States."
A record of items sold at Mount Vernon on July 21 & 22, 1802 includes what was described as: "plates arms U.S." Perhaps this refers to that "Brass engraving of the Arms of the U. States."
The word "plates," however, is puzzling both the word itself and its use in the plural. The Dorsett Seal could conceivably be called a plate. Furthermore, the arms of the United States have a reverse, which engraved on another bronze disk would have been reason for use of the plural. Perhaps the Dorsett seal was one of a pair, the reverse of which is now missing.
Note: The missing "plate" may not be a reverse side (pyramid & eye) of the Great Seal because, strictly speaking, only the obverse side (eagle) is considered the "arms" of the United States. Therefore the "plates arms U.S." possessed by President Washington would likely be another form of the obverse side. John D. MacArthur
How and why did the Dorsett seal die come into existence, and what purpose was it intended to serve? Lacking facts, one must speculate as to the answers.
The transposing of the olive branch and the arrows was certainly intentional. It constituted a "difference" in the heraldic sense of the term that distinguished this seal unmistakably from the Great Seal without obliterating evidence of close relationship to it.
Such treatment of coats of arms is not unusual. Comparable "differencing" appears today in the seal of the President of the United States, in the seal of the Department of State, and in a number of other seals used within the Federal Government. In such cases the device of the Great Seal serves as the basic design but is modified in one or more details, thus reflecting both kinship and distinctness.
Note: A similar transposition of olive branch and arrows appears on the reverse of many U.S. coins, from 1796 to 1885. Shown here is the half dime of 1800-1805.
There would have been no point or purpose in Washington's having a seal such as the Dorsett seal until he became President. Thus presumably it was cut after his inauguration in 1789. While he occupied that office it would have been a fitting symbol, as the President's seal is today. The transfer of the arrows, with their military significance, to the eagle's right talon would have been peculiarly appropriate for President Washington, who had previously won fame as Commander in Chief.
It seems highly unlikely, however, that Washington commissioned the engraving or purchased the die himself. In the first place, he seems never to have used it; and in the second place, as Miss Meadows [Curator at Mount Vernon in 1975] points out, "It is contrary to all we know about George Washington that he would have affected such an elaborate seal or device for personal or social reasons." It was simply out of character for him to have bought the Dorsett seal die.
This leaves, as the only remaining possibility, the conclusion that Washington received the die as a gift. Such a gift could have come either from an engraver who had cut the die himself or from someone else, who had employed an engraver to cut it.
In 1941 Dorsett placed the seal on loan at Mount Vernon. After his death in 1943, his sister changed the loan to an unrestricted gift to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.
In the absence of further information, the Dorsett seal may be counted as either the immediate predecessor or the earliest example of the seal of the President of the United States.