GreatSeal.com logo

Main Pages

Front Page
Overview
Seal FAQs

Design Process
 1st Committee
 2nd Committee
 3rd Committee
 Final Design
 Description
 Explanation

Latin Mottoes
 E Pluribus Unum
 Annuit Coeptis
 Novus Ordo Seclorum

Symbols (front)
 Bald Eagle
 Shield
 Olive Branch
 Arrows
 Stars
 Rays of Light
 Cloud

Symbols (back)
 Pyramid
 Eye
 MDCCLXXVI

Great Seals
 Official Dies
 First Engravings
 First Painting
 1792 Medal
 Indian Medals
 1882 Medal
 One-Dollar Bill

Myths
 Eagle Side
 Pyramid Side

Themes
 Unity
 Peace
 Liberty
 Thirteen

Related
 Wild Turkey
 President's Seal
 Sightings
 Resources


Explanation of the Great Seal's Symbolism

In addition to the formal heraldic description of the Great Seal adopted by Congress on June 20, 1782, Charles Thomson included his "Remarks and Explanation" of the symbolism – the only official comments about the meaning of the Great Seal.

Main Points

Remarks and Explanation
by Charles Thomson (June 20, 1782)

  • The shield (escutcheon) is composed of thirteen stripes that represent the several states joined into one solid compact, supporting the chief (top section of the shield) which unites the whole and represents Congress. The stripes are kept closely united by the chief and the chief depends upon that union and the strength resulting from it.

  • The motto E Pluribus Unum alludes to this union.

  • The shield is born on the breast of an American Eagle without any other supporters to denote that the United States of America ought to rely on their own virtue.

  • The olive branch and arrows denote the power of peace and war which is exclusively vested in Congress.

  • The constellation of thirteen stars denotes a new state taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers.

  • The pyramid signifies strength and duration.

  • The Eye over it and the motto Annuit Coeptis allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favor of the American cause.

  • The date 1776 underneath is that of the Declaration of Independence and the words Novus Ordo Seclorum under it signify the beginning of the new American Era, which commences from that date.

Original Document and Transcript

Charles Thomson's explanation of the shield symbolism
Shield symbolism

Remarks and Explanation
The Escutcheon is composed of the chief & pale, the two most honorable ordinaries. The Pieces, paly, represent the several states all joined in one solid compact entire, supporting a Chief, which unites the whole & represents Congress. The Motto alludes to this union. The pales in the arms are kept closely united by the chief and the Chief depends upon that union & the strength resulting from it for its support, to denote the Confederacy of the United States of America & the preservation of their union through Congress.

    Heraldic terms used above:
  • escutcheon = shield
  • chief = top section of the shield
  • pale, pieces, paly = vertical stripes on the shield

Charles Thomson's explanation of the obverse side symbolism
Obverse side symbolism

The Olive branch and arrows denote the power of peace & war which is exclusively vested in Congress. The Constellation denotes a new State taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers. The Escutcheon is born on the breast of an American Eagle without any other supporters to denote that the United States of America ought to rely on their own Virtue.–


Charles Thomson's explanation of the reverse side symbolism
Reverse side symbolism

Reverse. The pyramid signifies Strength and Duration: The Eye over it & the Motto allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favour of the American cause. The date underneath is that of the Declaration of Independence and the words under it signify the beginning of the new American Æra, which commences from that date.–

Seven different dies of the Great Seal have been used since 1782, but the original written description remains unchanged.

Historical content is based on the official history of the Great Seal.
Author and webwright: John D. MacArthur