Open your wallet and take out a one dollar bill (assuming that you possess cash any longer). Turn the bill to the back side and inspect the Great Seal of the Unite States of America. FDR had the images of the front and back of the Great Seal placed on the bill in 1935. Ironic that, during a period of economic despair, our national leader should call upon the symbol of our nation to be displayed on our currency.
The right side image, with the bald eagle, is the front of the seal. The left side image, with the pyramid, is the back of the seal. The seal originated during the early years of our nation and the early years of nationalism in Europe. The Continental Congress established a committee to design a seal on the day that the Declaration of Independence was issued. It took from 1776 to 1782, and four drafts, before Congress accepted the final seal design, on June 20th. Those involved in the Arab Spring movement should keep this time frame in mind: revolutions are only the beginning of a long process of organizing society. The contentious opinion wrangling takes years, and if our nation is any model of democracy, will continue for centuries.
The final design, assembled by the Secretary of Congress, Charles Thomas, with consultation from a Philadelphian, William Barton, learned in European heraldry tradition, contained several mottos and symbolic images. Most of us are familiar with the latin phrase, “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of Many, One), on the banner that the eagle holds in its beak. On the back of the seal are two other mottos, “Annuti Coeptis” (Providence has favored our undertakings) and “Novus Ordo Seclorum” (A new order of the ages). Okay, those of you who read The Di Vinci Code know about those phrases… or at least the conspiracy theory behind them. Each motto speaks to the beliefs of the leaders of this forming nation: Unity; Favored by a higher power; Order from the chaos of the royalty of Europe.
The symbolic images also carry these themes that revolution brought change and progress, rather than just rebellion and revolt. The prominent eagle envisioned power, soaring above the landscape, and relying on its own virtue (interestingly, Thomson’s image had the wings pointed down, which is a bit more anatomically correct, but the final draft turned the wings upward, creating a more lofty impression). On the chest of the eagle is a shield with 13 red and white strips, representing the 13 colonies joined together. The eagle’s right talon holds an olive branch with 13 olives and 13 leaves, representing peace. The eagle’s left talon holds 13 arrows representing war. The eagle holds both peace and war, just as Congress holds these powers. Above the eagle are 13 stars, demonstrating that the 13 states are taking their place in the constellation of sovereign nations. The back side of the seal shows a pyramid of strength topped by the eye of God watching over this nation (crested with the phrase “Annuit Coeptis”). At the base of the pyramid are the Roman numerals MDCCLXXVI (1776) (along with the phrase “Novus Ordo Seclorum”).
One impression that I see in this seal is that the symbols are mostly about the collective nation, collective government, and collective purpose. By what process have we become so divided, rather than unified? By what process have we lost the sense of governing together, rather than either rallying our special interest lobbies or emphasizing the Presidency as the supreme election (were we not about getting rid of the power of the Crown?)? By what process have we become the All-About-Me culture?
If we were to design a Great Seal today, what would be put on it?