That quote has a very interesting ending, as well as being a significant part of the story story behind the Great Seal of the United States. The story behind the creation of our seal is fascinating! There is so much information that it will be told in multiple posts.
What is the Great Seal? It is much like a pictorial signature of our country. You have seen it so many times that you may not even attend to it. It is on the back of the one dollar bill. It is on the seal of many federal officials. It is stamped on treaties and other important documents with the official stamp that is kept in the United States Department of State.
Although you might think that the Great Seal is nothing more than a bit of window dressing in front of the presidential podium, the Founders distinctly disagreed. On the same day as they finalized the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress established a committee to create a seal which represented the newly established United States. At that point in time, seals were often used to convey a message or even sway public opinion. Therefore, creating the first seal of the United States was quite an important task. The committee was comprised not merely of any member who might have chosen to volunteer, but of three of the great minds who wrote the Declaration of Independence. “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.”
If you are an artist, you might relish the opportunity to design the Great Seal. None of those men, however, were artists. They also were not experienced in heraldry. The task at hand was essentially to design a coat of arms for the new country and doing so would actually be quite difficult.
How could they convey the principles which guided the colonists to seek liberty? What symbols could effectively communicate those principles to citizens of the fledgling nation and foreign governments as well? Jefferson, Adams and Franklin each had ideas about what should be included on the seal. They discussed their ideas during a meeting on August 13. The symbolism they each wanted to include was epic in proportion. The imagery they each suggested was either Biblical or mythological in substance. John Adams proposed using the scene from the 1596 painting by Annibale Carracci entitled “The Judgment of Hercules.” In the painting, Hercules ponders whether to obtain glory and honor by leading a virtuous life or follow the vice filled path of a pleasure. He chose the work because of its inclusion in Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Time by the Third Earl of Shaftesbury Anthony Ashley Cooper. That book continues to be a part of his library as held by the Boston Public Library. In the end, Adams admitted to his wife in a letter dated August 14, 1776 that the idea was both unoriginal and too complicated. In the same letter, he noted Jefferson’s idea: “Mr. Jefferson proposed. The Children of Israel in the Wilderness, led by a Cloud by day, and a Pillar of Fire by night, and on the other Side Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon Chiefs, from whom We claim the Honour of being descended and whose Political Principles and Form of Government We have assumed.” We can safely assume that this idea was also voted down because of its complexity. Jefferson so agreed with Franklin’s proposal for the motto to be included on the seal, “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God,” that he incorporated it into his own personal seal. The attached image is of Jefferson’s seal as it appeared in 1790. Franklin agreed with Jefferson’s idea to reference a Biblical scene. However, he chose a scene from Exodus. The specifics of his idea are documented in his notes: “Moses standing on the Shore and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharoah who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head & Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity.”
It is possible that when they met together, they soon realized that they needed assistance. They involved an experienced artist who produced a much more traditional design than the great trio had originally proposed. The details of that design will be discussed in my next post.
Please take a moment to note that even the greatest minds of our founding were not expert in all things. We are a country of citizens with variety of specialties and talents. When we work together, we bring out What IS Right With America!
Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.