This month marks the 230th anniversary of the adoption of the Great Seal of the United States, which is most often seen on the back of the $1 bill. But if John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin had their way, the seal would look very different.
John Adams' Design
After they'd completed their work on the Declaration of Independence, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin were chosen by the Continental Congress to work as a committee and submit a seal design for approval.
We have the descriptions of each man's proposed seal from a letter John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail. Adams suggested an illustration depicting the Choice of Hercules. This Greek allegory has Hercules deciding which path to walk in life by deliberating with the female personifications of Pleasure and Virtue.
Here's how Adams described the seal:
The Hero resting on his Clubb. Virtue pointing to her rugged Mountain, on one Hand, and perswading him to ascend. Sloth, glancing at her flowery Paths of Pleasure, wantonly reclining on the Ground, displaying the Charms both of her Eloquence and Person, to seduce him into Vice.
Thomas Jefferson's Design
Jefferson was more ambitious and proposed designs for both sides of the seal.
Jefferson wanted an illustration of the Israelites' exodus out of slavery and bondage from Egypt for the front of his seal. The choice of this design adds another layer to his complicated relationship with slavery. Jefferson, at the time of his death, owned over 100 slaves; his writings, however, suggested a disdain for the institution of slavery. In his draft of the Declaration of Independence submitted to the Continental Congress, he listed one of the crimes of the King as forcing the institution of slavery on the colonies in America. In this draft he described slavery as a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred right of life and liberty.”
For the back side of the seal, Jefferson proposed an illustration of Hengist and Horsa, 5th-century Saxon warriors from Germany. They came to England as mercenaries to help the Briton tribe defend themselves against the rival tribes of the Picts and Scots. King George III also hired German mercenaries to wage war on the colonists, so this choice seems problematic.
Benjamin Franklin's Design
The illustration above is based on the committee's revision of the design Benjamin Franklin submitted for the reverse of the seal. Franklin had a similar idea to Jefferson’s and wanted to illustrate a scene from the Exodus of the Israelites. The seal would show Moses parting the Red Sea with Pharaoh and his chariots being overwhelmed by the waters with the motto: Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God. Thomas Jefferson became so enamored with this motto he incorporated it for his own personal seal design.
Franklin was not happy with the eagle that was eventually chosen, as he explained in a letter to his daughter:
For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perch’d on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish,... the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
In the first part of this letter, Franklin described the problems with a ruling aristocracy. Franklin saw the eagle as an avian aristocrat: classy-looking but unconcerned with helping the helpless.
Artistic Consultant Pierre Du Simitière's Design
One of the first actions of the Great Seal Committee was to call on an outside consultant to assist in the task. They picked artist Pierre Eugene Du Simitière, who, like the rest of this committee, was a member of the American Philosophical Society. Du Simitèire was born in Switzerland and was a painter, naturalist, and antiquarian collector. The picture above is what the committee picked for front of the seal, which was a revision of Du Simitèire’s proposal.
His use of the Eye of Providence and the motto E pluribus unum are retained as elements in the seal today. The motto E pluribus unum ("out of many, one") is put into context by Du Simitèire's design, which contains a shield with 6 symbols representing the former nations (England, Scotland, Ireland, France, the Netherlands and Germany) of the colonists. There were no plans to include a symbol for the 20% of the population that came from Africa.
The committee submitted their design to the Continental Congress on August 20, 1776, and on the same day they received a report that the proposed design was ordered "to lie on the table," which was a polite way of saying, “Thanks, but no thanks,” to the committee for their work.
The Continental Congress waited more than three years to form a new committee, whose design (above) was also tabled by the Continental Congress.
A third committee was formed and created their proposal (above) for the Congress; no official action was taken on their design.
Congress eventually delegated the responsibility to Charles Thomson—Secretary of the Continental Congress for its entire 15 year existence—to create a design after giving him the work of the previous three committees. Thomson's final design, approved by the Congress in 1782, was a combination of the elements provided by all three of the committees.
And this is how it looked when the final design was first published in 1787, in The Columbian magazine.