Symbols of U.S. Government:
On July 4, 1776, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were given the task of creating a seal for the United States of America. The delegates of the Constitutional Convention believed an emblem and national coat of arms would be evidence of an independent nation and a free people with high aspirations and grand hopes for the future.
The Great Seal was finalized and approved six years later on June 20, 1782. The seal reflects the beliefs and values that the Founding Fathers wanted to pass on to their descendents.
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?
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 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.
The Great Seal can be seen on the back of a one-dollar bill. The Secretary of State is the official custodian of the seal. It is only attached (affixed) to certain documents, such as foreign treaties and presidential proclamations. The Great Seal is displayed in the Exhibit Hall of the Department of State, in Washington, DC
To learn more, check out The Great Seal of the United States (PDF, 981k) from the U.S. State Department.