great-seal-reversegreat-seal-obverseThe Great Seal of the United States is a symbol of our independent Nation and self-government. It appears on official documents such as proclamations, warrants, treaties, and commissions of high officials of the Government.

The Continental Congress first created a committee to design a seal for the United States on July 4, 1776, the same day that they adopted the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams created a design that was eventually rejected, but one element was adopted: the motto E Pluribus Unum, which is Latin for “Out of Many, One.”

In 1780, James Lovell of Massachusetts and John Morin Scott and William Churchill Houston of Virginia developed a second design which was also rejected by Congress. Some elements, such as the olive branch, the thirteen stars, and the shield with red and white stripes on a blue field, were used in the final design. In 1782, a third committee used the eagle for the first time. The Secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thomson, created a fourth design that was then slightly changed by William Barton. The Continental Congress approved this design on June 20, 1782. The design used the eagle that holds a scroll in its beak with the E Pluribus Unum motto; in one claw is an olive branch, a symbol of peace, and the other claw holds thirteen arrows, a symbol of war.

The seal's reverse side contains a thirteen-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, which is Latin for “It [the Eye of Providence] is favorable to our undertakings” or “He favors our undertakings.” Below the pyramid, a scroll reads, Novus Ordo Seclorum, which is Latin for “New Order of the Ages.” It refers to 1776 as the beginning of a new era of the United States.

Great Seal of the United States facts and figures:

  • The Great Seal is used as our national coat of arms.
  • The Great Seal is used officially as decoration on military uniform buttons, on plaques, and above the entrances to U.S. embassies and consulates.
  • Both the seal and the reverse, which is never used as a seal, appear on the one-dollar bill.
  • The Secretary of State is the official custodian of the Great Seal.
  • Thirteen is an important number used in the Great Seal. It represents the original colonies and first 13 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Virginia.
  • There are also 13 stars in the crest above the eagle; 13 stripes in the shield; 13 arrows in the eagle’s left claw; 13 olives and leaves in the eagle’s right claw; and 13 letters in the motto E Pluribus Unum.

To learn more, see the U.S. Department of State publication, The Great Seal of the United States.