If you’ve seen any conspiracy theory movies involving Freemasons or other secret societies, you probably remember numerous references to the Great Seal of the United States on the reverse of the one dollar bill. Stories about secret societies make for great movies but real life is probably less glamorous (it always is!). I thought it would be interesting to look at the seal, as many have done beforehand, and explain a little of the imagery.
The image on the left, with the pyramid, is considered the reverse (back) side of the seal. The image on the right, with the eagle, is considered the obverse (front) side. In 1776, Congress established a three-person committee to design the Seal, but they never completed the task. Over the next six years, two more committees were formed until a final design was assembled by Charles Thomson, secretary to Congress, in 1782.
The most prominent part of the Seal is the bald eagle, representative of liberty and freedom. In his talons are an olive branch (the strong right talon) and a bundle of thirteen arrows (the weaker left talon), with the eagle always looking towards the olive branch. The olive branch represents peace while the arrows represent war, thus representing the fact that the power to declare peace and war were the right of Congress alone. The thirteen arrows represent the thirteen colonies and strength in unity. On the eagle’s chest is a shield with thirteen red (6) and white (7) stripes supporting the blue, signifying that it is the states (stripes) who support the federal government (blue). “E pluribus unum” (Out of many, one) is written on the ribbon clutched in the eagle’s beak, reinforcing the idea that the federal government comes out of the authority of the states. Finally, the constellation of thirteen stars breaking through the clouds signifies that this new federal government, with thirteen states, should take its place among the other sovereign nations.
The reverse side is less exciting but has several bits of imagery worth checking out. First, of course, is the pyramid that dominates the Seal. The pyramid represents strength and duration, much like the great Pyramids at Giza still remain. The pyramid has thirteen levels, though that was explicitly called out in the original design. Atop the pyramid is the Eye of Providence, or God, to watch over. Over the eye, there is the Latin phrase “Annuit Cœptis,” which loosely translates to “favors undertakings.” It referred to Providence, or God, favoring the undertakings of the United States. The other Latin phrase, Novus ordo seclorum, translates to “New Order of the Ages.” Finally, the Roman numeral MDCCLXXVI, at the base of the pyramid, translates to 1776.
- The obverse side of the Great Seal is used to emboss the design onto Treaties and other official documents and stored in the Exhibit Hall of the Department of State.
- Benjamin Franklin wanted a wild turkey instead of the eagle, but that never made it into the final design.
- The Secretary of State is the official custodian of the Great Seal.
- In the original design submitted by one of the Great Seal committees, the eagle was a phoenix. The phoenix represented how the United States rose from the ashes of the Revolutionary War against England. The phoenix, however, never appeared on the official Seal.
- The Seal didn’t appear on the dollar bill until 1935.
- The shield on the Seal has 6 red and 7 white stripes while the United States flag has 7 red and 6 white stripes.
- On many flags and seals with shields, the shield is often supported by other figures. It was important that the shield be supported by the eagle, indicating the United States ought to rely on itself for support.
- God is refered to as Providence in the closing sentence of the Declaration of Independence: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
- Novus ordo seclorum, New Order of the Ages, comes from the fourth Eclogue of Virgil. Virgil was a very famous Latin poet and the Eclogues were one of three of his major works.
- The obverse side of the seal is very similar to the Seal of the President of the United States. There are some minor differences but the general imagery is the same with one exception. Until 1945, when President Truman signed Executive Order No. 9646 and specified the design of the Seal, the eagle faced right and towards the arrows.
Hope you enjoyed the trivia!