The Great Seal
When’s the last time you took a close look at the back of a dollar bill? You will find there a second great symbol of America that comes from the time of our Founders. The Great Seal of the United States consciously appeals to Divine Providence.
Symbolism and Phraseology
Studying the symbolism and phraseology chosen for the Seal helps to explain our Founders’ understanding of the role of Providence in the formation of our nation, and the intersection of faith and government.
The Front Side of the Great Seal
The front of the Great Seal speaks of the moral character that is to make up the people of the new sovereign nation. In explanation of the imagery chosen, the Journal of Congress notes,
The escutcheon [shield] is composed of the Chief [the upper horizontal band of the shield in blue] and pale,[the vertical stripes in red and white] the two most honorable ordinaries [heraldic symbols]. The pieces, paly [stripes], represent the several States all joined in one solid compact entire, supporting a Chief which unites the whole and represents Congress. The motto [E pluribus Unum, out of many, one] alludes to this Union. The pales in the Arms [the shield in its entirety] are kept closely united by the Chief and the Chief depends on that union, and the strength resulting from it for its support, to denote the Confederacy of the United States of America. White signifies purity and innocence. Red hardiness and valour and Blue the colour of the Chief signifies vigilance perseverance and justice. The Olive Branch and arrows denote the power of peace and war which is exclusively vested in Congress. The Constellation [over the head of the eagle and contained within a glory proper, or halo] denotes a new State taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers. The escutcheon is borne on the breast of an American Eagle without any other supporters, to denote that the United States of America ought to rely on their own virtue. (Journals of the Contintental Congress, Vol XXII)
The Reverse Side of the Great Seal
While the front of the Great Seal speaks of moral character, the Reverse points to the Providence of God. Again as described in the Journal of Congress, (June 20, 1782):
REVERSE. A pyramid unfinished. In the zenith, an eye in a triangle, surrounded with a glory proper [cloudy radiance that surrounds a deity when on earth]. Over the eye these words, Annuit Coeptis. On the base of the pyramid the numerical letters MDCCLXXVI . And underneath the following motto, Novus Ordo Seclorum [the New Order of the Age] . . . The Pyramid signifies strength and duration. The eye over it and the motto allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favour of the American cause. The date underneath is that of the Declaration of Independence, and the words under it signify the beginning of the new American Era, which commences from that date… (Journal, Vol. XXII).
The eye of Providence in a triangle is a symbol depicting God the Father. The Latin motto, Annuit Coeptis, was added to the Great Seal of the United States by Charles Thompson, Secretary to the Continental Congress. As a Biblical and classics scholar, he took the phrase from Virgil. It means “He has smiled (nodded) on our undertakings.” Thus it communicates the belief that God’s providence or protecting intervention had blessed America’s struggle for freedom.
When explaining the front side of the Seal, Congress declared, “The United States of America ought to rely on their own virtue.” The virtues intended by our Founders are clearly indicated by the three colors they selected for the shield on the Great Seal, which are the very same famous colors of the American flag. As noted, “White signifies purity and innocence. Red hardiness and valour and Blue the colour of the Chief signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice.” The Congress goes on to say the thirteen-star constellation is to make up one six-pointed star above the American eagle, denoting “a new State taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers”.
The significance of these choices is important. The Seal, in essence, is calling for the new sovereign nation to trust in the support of God’s Divine Providence as it attempts to be a sovereign nation exercising the moral virtues of purity, courage, and justice.
When the Declaration and the Great Seal are considered together, it is evident that our Founders believed that God was aiding and protecting the new American nation. God and government were distinct entities, yet allies in the cause of true liberty. The notion of God’s special care for America goes back to the earliest pilgrims and runs throughout our history.