During Medieval times and even earlier, important people added a seal made of wax to letters and documents. These seals proved that the letter was really written by the person who signed it. Seals were sometimes used to close letters to keep them secret.
Today, seals are still used on official documents. A notary is a government official that has a special seal used to verify documents, such as legal agreements. The Great Seal of the United States is sometimes added to very important documents.
The Continental Congress began planning a seal as soon as the Declaration of Independence was signed. The Great Seal wasn’t approved by Congress until 1782.
The Great Seal is a round piece of metal with designs on both the front and back. You can see both sides of the Great Seal printed on the back of a dollar bill.
On the front of the seal is bald eagle with the shield of the United States. The shield has thirteen red and white stripes, representing the thirteen original colonies.
The shield is unsupported, symbolizing that America stands on its own for virtue and justice.
A blue stripe at the top of the shield stands for Congress.
The eagle holds an olive branch, symbolizing peace, in one talon.
The other talon holds the arrows of war.
The eagle holds a ribbon in its beak which contains the Latin words, “E. pluribus unum,” which means “From many, one.” (from many states, one nation)
The back of the seal bears a pyramid with thirteen layers, representing the thirteen original colonies.
On the bottom step of the pyramid is the Roman date MDCCLXXVI—1776.
The top of the pyramid is an all-seeing eye, which represents God. Above the eye are the Latin words, Annuitcoeptis, which means “God has favored our undertaking.” Below the pyramid, is inscribed, “Novus ordo seclorum,” which means, “A new order of the ages is created.”
Shield: a protective device used in battle
Talon: a bird’s claws
Pyramid: triangular-shaped structure
Questions and Answers
Question: Why did the Founding Fathers add so many words and images to the Great Seal?
Answer: They hoped that the Great Seal would inspire future generations and help them remember the Founding Fathers’ love of freedom, virtue, honesty, courage, sacrifice, and belief in God.
The Founding Fathers quickly drafted some ideas for the Great Seal as soon as the Declaration of Independence was signed. Visit PBS to see one of their first designs.