On the eve of the 2016 election, it seems appropriate to focus on our national symbol and where it came from. The Bald Eagle became the symbol of the United States in 1782 with the adoption of the Great Seal of the United States. Like many great ideas, the design of this seal had many false starts and frustrations. The version we know today is actually a revision of the original updated in 1885 with the help of the Tiffany Company.
The Great Seal has been on the back of the US dollar bill since 1935.
The importance of having a national seal to symbolize the emerging nation was apparent from the beginning. Shortly after passing the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress passed a resolution to create a committee of three luminaries to work out the design for a national emblem. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, with the assistance of an experienced portrait artist wrestled with symbols and references to classical themes in finally developing a solution. The Congress responded by rejected their design.
A second committee was formed in 1780, with three more leaders. They also worked with a recognized artist and engraver. They also wrestled with a number of ideas and they also produced a final design that Congress rejected.
The design as proposed by Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Congress in 1782.
A third committee of three more leaders tried again in 1782. This group deferred to a young attorney with artistic skills and an expertise in heraldry, William Barton. Barton included a design that included an imperial eagle with a shielded crest. Congress reviewed his submission and wasn’t satisfied. This time, they referred all the unapproved designs to Charles Thompson, the Secretary of the Congress.
The first die of the US Seal used until 1841.
Thompson consolidated elements from the previous works and selected the American bald eagle as the centerpiece. He directed Barton to included powerful symbols for the new republic. The 13 colonies were represented in the 13 arrows held by the eagle, the 13 stripes on the crest, and 13 stars above the eagle’s head. The Eagle is clutching an olive branch and a bundle of arrows, symbolic of the power of peace and war. It was Thompson who pulled the motto from one of the first rejected designs. In the eagle’s beak is a ribbon with the words “E Pluribus Unum,” which translates to, “Out of Many, One.”
On June 29, 1782, Thompson presented this seal design, along with the reverse symbol of the stepped pyramid to the Congress. After six years of frustrating rejections, this time, Congress was satisfied and accepted Thompson’s report the same day.
The Great Seal on the inside page of a modern-day passport.
There were a few variations used in the first hundred years, but by the 1880’s, Congress commissioned Tiffany & Co for an update. Tiffany’s head engraver, James Horton Whitehouse, used his considerable skill, experience, and research to clean up the original symbols and to create a more robust and muscular eagle. His final update was accepted and Tiffany’s was commissioned to create the official die which was in use for official documents for the next 17 years. Today, the Whitehouse seal is the image used on all official documents representing the United States of America.