Charles Thomson might not be our most famous founding father but he sure can pack a lot of meaning into a small area.
Thomson, who served as secretary of the Continental Congress, designed the Great Seal of the United States, or the markings you see on the back of the $1 bill.
It took Congress six years to finally settle on a design in 1782, but there hasn’t been much change since. The staying power of Thomson’s design is remarkable since he wasn’t an artist.
The seal gets used 2,000-3,000 times a year, mostly to accompany the President’s signature on documents, according to the U.S. Department of State. It’s also the source of some pretty awesome conspiracy theories, including claims that it is linked to Satanic power.
The Obverse (Shield, Eagle, Arrows and Olive Branch, Motto)
The Shield: More formally known as the estucheon, Thomson described the shield as “paleways of thirteen pieces Argent and Gules: a chief, Azure,” which means alternating white and red stripes with a heavier blue band on top. According to Thomson’s “Remarks and Explanations” on the design, the stripes represented 13 original states, joined by the uniting force of Congress but also supporting Congress with their unity. As for the colours, white was meant to signify “purity and innocence,” red was for “hardiness and valour,” and blue was for “purity and justice.”
The Eagle: The shield rests in front of the Eagle unsupported, and together they are meant to be a sign that “the United States of America ought to rely on their own virtue,” i.e. independent from the British and other European influences.
The Arrows and Olive Branch: In his dexter (Latin for right, from the point of view of the one wearing the crest) talon, the Eagle has an olive branch, and in his sinister (Latin for left) arrows, representative of “the power and peace of war which is exclusively vested in Congress.”
Motto: E pluribus Unum, or, out of many, one, meant to symbolise state unity. The motto has gotten flack from the likes of Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.) for not being sufficiently religious.
Crest: Thomson’s original design featured a constellation of 13 stars breaking through clouds above the eagle’s head, representing “a new State taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers.” Today’s design still has the stars on Thomson’s “Azure field,” but they are contained within a sun-like ring.
The Reverse (Pyramid, Eye, Banner)
Pyramid: The unfinished pyramid represents “strength and duration” in the new nation. At the base, the date MDCCLXXVI is 1776 in Roman numerals.
Eye: The eye is at the pyramid’s “Zenith,” underneath the words “Annuit Coeptis,” or “he approved of our beginnings.” Thomson explains that the two together “allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favour of the American cause.” Basically, God is on our side.
Banner: At the bottom of the reverse, there are the words “Novus Ordo Seclorum,” or new order of the ages. Thomson meant to herald the “beginning of the New American Era.”
The more you know!
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