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US Great Seal

Great Seal of the United States

US Great Seal

Adopted on June 20, 1782.

On July 4, 1776, the same day that independence from Great Britain was declared by the thirteen states, the Continental Congress named the first committee to design a Great Seal, or national emblem, for the country. Similar to other nations, The United States needed an official symbol of sovereignty to formalize and seal (or sign) international treaties and transactions. It took six years, three committees, and the contributions of fourteen men before the Congress finally accepted a design (which included elements proposed by each of the three committees) in 1782.

US Great SealThe Great Seal of the United States is used to authenticate certain documents issued by the United States federal government. The phrase is used both for the physical seal itself (which is kept by the United States Secretary of State), and more generally for the design impressed upon it. The Great Seal was first used publicly in 1782.

The obverse of the great seal is used as the national coat of arms of the United States. It is officially used on documents such as United States passports, military insignia, embassy placards, and various flags. As a coat of arms, the design has official colors; the physical Great Seal itself, as affixed to paper, is monochrome.

Since 1935, both sides of the Great Seal have appeared on the reverse of the one-dollar bill. The Seal of the President of the United States is directly based on the Great Seal, and its elements are used in numerous government agency and state seals.

Great Seal of the United State

The Great Seal was first used on the reverse of the one-dollar Federal Reserve note in 1935. The Department of State is official keeper of the Seal. Symbolically, the seal reflects the beliefs and values that the Founding Fathers attached to the new nation and wished to pass on to their descendants. Charles Thompson (Secretary of Congress - 1782) explained the obverse side of the seal this way:

The red and white stripes of the shield "represent the several states...supporting a [blue] Chief which unites the whole and represents Congress." The colors are adopted from the American flag: "White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valor, and Blue, the color of the Chief, signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice."

In the center of the seal is an bald eagle, our national bird. It holds in its beak a scroll inscribed E pluribus unum, which is Latin meaning "out of many, one" and stands for one nation that was created from 13 colonies. In one claw is an olive branch, while the other holds a bundle of thirteen arrows. The olive branch and arrows "denote the power of peace and war."

A shield with thirteen red and white stripes covers the eagle's breast. The shield is supported solely by the American eagle to denote that Americans should rely on their own virtue. The red and white stripes of the shield represent the states united under and supporting the blue, representing the President and Congress. The color white signifies purity and innocence; red, hardiness and valor; and blue signifies vigilance, perseverance, and justice. Above the eagle's head is a cloud surrounding a blue field containing thirteen stars, which forms a constellation. The constellation denotes that a new State is taking its place among other nations.

Do you see a pattern of thirteen in the Great Seal?

  • 13 stars in the crest above the eagle
  • 13 stripes in the shield upon the eagle's breast
  • 13 arrows in the eagle's left claw
  • 13 olives and leaves in the eagles' right claw
  • 13 letters in the motto carried by the eagle, E Pluribus Unum

Why thirteen? Thirteen represents the first thirteen states - Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

The number 13, denoting the 13 original States, is represented in the bundle of arrows, the stripes of the shield, and the stars of the constellation. The olive branch and the arrows "denote the power of peace and war." The constellation of stars symbolizes a new nation taking its place among other sovereign states. The motto E Pluribus Unum, emblazoned across the scroll and clenched in the eagle's beak, expresses the union of the 13 States. Recent scholarship has pointed out the probable source of this motto: Gentleman's Magazine, published in London from 1732 to 1922, was widely read by the educated in the American Colonies. Its title page carried that same motto and it is quite possible that it influenced the creators of the seal.


The seal's reverse side is sometimes referred to as the spiritual side. It contains a 13-step pyramid with the year 1776 in Roman numerals at the base. At the top of the pyramid is the Eye of Providence and above is the motto Annuit Coeptis, meaning "It [the Eye of Providence] is favorable to our undertakings" or "He favors our undertakings." Below the pyramid, a scroll reads, Novus Ordo Seclorum, meaning "New Order of the Ages." It refers to 1776 as the beginning of the American new era.

Learn more about The Great Seal of the United States (PDF, 981k)

State Seals
State Seals
When communications were transcribed by hand and tediously undertaken, seals authenticated official government documents. In this day of computers & instant communications, seals still serve the same purpose.
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