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Detail of Francis Hopkinson's design for the front of the Great Seal (1780). Francis Hopkinson's design for the reverse side of the Great Seal (1780). Charles Thomson's preliminary sketch, June 1782.

The Olive Branch on the Great Seal

"A Figure representing Peace bearing an Olive Branch" (above left) was suggested in 1780 by the second Great Seal committee. And on the reverse side of their design created by Francis Hopkinson, Liberty is seated, holding an olive branch (above center).

Two years later, Charles Thomson put together the final design for the Great Seal. He placed the an olive branch in the eagle's stronger right talon and faced the eagle toward it. (Detail of Thomson's preliminary sketch is shown above right.)

Detail of Blazon

The official description of the Great Seal states: "The American bald Eagle... holding in his dexter [right] talon an Olive branch..." (The number of olives or leaves is not specified.)

Thomson explained the symbolism: "The Olive branch and arrows denote the power of peace & war which is exclusively vested in Congress."

Detail of Explanation.

The mythological origin of the olive as a symbol of peace as opposed to war goes back to a contest between Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and Poseidon, the god of the sea. Whoever could produce the gift most useful to mortals would win.

Poseidon offered the horse, useful in warfare. Athena's gift was the olive tree, which the gods judged to be the more useful. Athena was awarded the city of Athens.

Olives are naturally associated with peace because, practically speaking, one cannot cultivate an olive grove in a war zone. Olive trees need many years of growth to produce their first fruit (and can live for 500 years). Farming itself is a peaceful occupation. Also, olives provide oil for lamps, so they bring light. And the cleansing power of olive oil brings purification.

The Great Seal of Peace

Not only does it emphasize the power of peace, but the Great Seal itself was born out of the desire for peace.

In the spring of 1782, there was an urgency to finalize the Great Seal (whose design process had begun six years earlier on July 4, 1776). The United States of America had won their long battle for Independence, and Britain was ready to recognize and treat them as a sovereign nation. A national seal would soon be needed to ratify the peace treaty.

At the end of that summer, the first Great Seal die was cut and first used on September 16, 1782 to begin sealing the peace with England – on a document authorizing General Washington to negotiate with the British and sign an agreement for the exchange, subsistence, and better treatment of prisoners of war.

Indian Peace Medals given by President Washington
contain some of the best realizations of the Great Seal.

The dove with an olive branch is also a symbol of peace.

NOTE: In heraldry, the symbol in a figure's right hand holds more significance than the one in its left. All dies of the Great Seal have shown the eagle facing the olive branch. The eagle on the Seal of the President, however, used to face the bundle of arrows.

"After much occasion to consider the folly and mischiefs of a state of warfare, and the little or no advantage obtained even by those nations who have conducted it with the most success, I have been apt to think that there has never been, or ever will be, any such thing as a good war, or a bad peace." – Benjamin Franklin to Jonathan Shipley, June 10, 1782

For an eloquent expression of the Great Seal's war and peace symbolism,
see President Obama's 2009 Nobel Peace Prize lecture.

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