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Great Seal of the United States

Updated on January 17, 2012

One of the chief symbols of the nation, is the device affixed to specified official documents to attest to their authenticity. The impression is made by two cut metal dies that, when pressed together, create a design in relief on a wafer of paper placed between them, which is then attached to the document.

The term "great seal" refers to this embossed imprint on the document as well as to the general design appearing on the wafer and metal dies. It is known as the "great" seal even though the United States has no lesser seal. The seal in use is essentially that adopted by the Continental Congress on June 20, 1782.

The Design

The design of the great seal consists of the national coat of arms surrounded by two concentric rings. The arms have an American bald eagle with raised wings as their chief feature. The eagle holds a branch of olive in its right talon and a bundle of 13 arrows in its left. A ribbon held in its beak displays the motto, E Pluribus Unum, meaning "From Many, One." Above the eagle's head is the crest, consisting of 13 stars against a blue sky, surrounded by rays of light and an encircling cloud. The national flag is suggested by the shield on the eagle's breast with its six red stripes on a white field and its blue chief (upper border).

The design for the reverse of the seal has never been cut as a die, but it is familiar as one of the motifs on the U.S. $1 bill. Above an unfinished pyramid appears an eye surrounded by rays of light. Below are the mottoes Annuit Cceptis and Novus Ordo Seclorum, which mean, respectively, "He Has Favored [Our] Undertakings" and "A New Order of the Ages."

The artistic and symbolic elements of the seal faces were drawn from many sources. The eagle has been a symbol of sovereignty in many societies. The olive branch and arrows stand for the power to make peace and war. The constellation above the eagle's head suggests the new nation taking its place as a sovereign republic. The red in the shield is said to stand for valor and hardiness; the blue for vigilance, justice, and perseverence; and the white for purity and innocence. The pyramid is an emblem of strength, and the eye of God above it alludes to hoped-for divine favor. The date 1776, in Roman numerals at the pyramid's base, is that of independence and the beginning of the "new order".


On the day the Declaration of Independence was adopted, July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress appointed a committee, consisting of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, to select a design for a United States seal. Their report of August 1776 was tabled, however, and new committees took up the matter in 1780 and 1782.

The first committee had favored mythological and Biblical representations such as Hercules choosing between virtue and sloth or Moses crossing the Red Sea. Other ideas considered by the committees were inspired by traditional European heraldry. One proposal combined the shields of England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, and the Netherlands with emblems for each of the 13 states and other elements. Soldiers, goddesses, eagles, doves, wreaths, and mottoes appeared on many designs.

The accepted design may have been conceived by the English baronet Sir John Prestwick. It was largely the work of the American heraldist William Barton and of the secretary of Congress, Charles Thomson, who modified Barton's plans, which were submitted by the third committee, and who worked with him to achieve the final result.

The design approved in 1782 has never been officially modified, but artistic variations were introduced as new dies were made. In all, seven dies have been cut-in 1782, 1825, 1841, 1854, 1877, 1885, and 1904-the first two in brass and the last five in steel. The 1904 version was an almost exact reproduction of the 1885 die, which was an improvement on earlier dies, being enlarged from about 2 1/2 inches (5.7 cm) to 3 inches (7.6 cm) in diameter and corrected to conform to the design specifications of 1782.

The die of 1825 was cut for use in preparing pendant wax seals for treaties. These were attached to the documents by tasseled cords and enclosed in silver boxes known as skippets; the 1854 die was cut specifically for embossing the seal on the skippet. Pendant seals were discontinued in 1871.

The great seal is kept in the U. S. Department of State. Its actual use on documents is strictly defined by law. Its design serves, however, as the basis for other seals and coats of arms used by civil and military authorities and has long appeared on flags, in architectural motifs, and on stationery and uniforms. U. S. diplomatic offices abroad use the coat of arms above their entrances.


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    • Wikipedia profile image

      Wikipedia 6 years ago

      Last Name White, Wikipedia is down at the moment (SOPA protest) so I did a search on hubpages and found a hub that explains the type of die that is being referred to:

    • profile image

      Last Name White 6 years ago

      Do you really mean dye as in the color dye for the seal symbol the paper to put it on. Instead die as in death.

    • Deborah Demander profile image

      Deborah Demander 7 years ago from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD

      Fascinating information.