The Great Seal of the United States, designed in 1776 by Charles Thomson, is perhaps the world's best known coat of arms but its prehistory remains partly obscure. What were Thomson’s sources? How did he use them?
* This post was originally published on January 5, 2017, and is reposted to mark US Independence Day *
In 1776, Charles Thomson (1729-1824), a classical scholar and Secretary of the Continental Congress, was asked to come up with a design for the Great Seal. This design, predestined to become world’s best known coat of arms, has been abundantly studied, but its prehistory remains partly obscure. What were Thomson’s sources? How did he use them?
The Great Seal depicts an American bald eagle, with wings spread wide (Fig. 1).
The bird holds 13 arrows in its left talon, and an olive branch in its right. Above its head are 13 stars. On its chest the bird has a shield with 13 stripes, alternately 7 red and 6 white ones. The bird looks to the right and has in its beak a scroll, which bears a 13-letter motto in Latin: E pluribus unum (Out of Many, One). When on 20 June 1782 the Congress approved Thomson’s design, the symbolism of the recurrent number 13 was obvious to everyone: it symbolised the 13 independent States represented in the Continental Congress. The symbolism of the arrows and the olive branch still had to be explained by Thomson: “The Olive branch and arrows denote the power of peace & war which is exclusively vested in Congress.” (Fig. 2).
A quick search on Google shows that Thomson’s sources are well known. His main source for his design was an emblem taken from a four-part Latin emblem book by the German scholar Joachim Camerarius (1534-1598), entitled Symbola et Emblemata (Fig. 3).
This work, first printed in Nuremberg in the 1590s and often reedited, was a favourite book of Benjamin Franklin, who drew inspiration from it for his designs for the first American coins and bank notes. Probably making use of Franklin’s copy (Mainz, 1702), Thomson took the first emblem of the third part of Camerarius’s book. This emblem represents a heraldic eagle, with an olive branch on its right, and a bundle of lightning bolts on its left. The olive branch was the traditional biblical symbol of peace; the bolts corresponded to the classical representation of the Graeco-Roman Zeus (Jupiter), who punished with his lightning and who had the eagle as his animal attribute. Thomson changed two essential points of Camerarius’s emblem. First, he substituted the bolts of Camerarius’s eagle with the 13 arrows, putting them not beside the eagle, but into the eagle’s talon. In doing so, he was probably following the example of the coat of arms of the Republic of the United Netherlands (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4. Coat of arms of the Republic of the United Netherlands. Source: MADe from nl [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch lion held in its left claw 7 arrows, symbolising the 7 United Provinces. Since classical antiquity, the bundling of arrows or other objects has been the symbol of unity: an individual arrow is weak and can be easily broken; the bundle as a whole is strong and unbreakable. Second, Thomson substituted Camerarius’s European heraldic eagle with the American bald eagle, known among the North American Indians as the traditional symbol for strength and prowess.
However, the enthusiasm for the bald eagle was not shared by all. Franklin wrote to his daughter Sarah, tongue-in-cheek:
"For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him."
And as a fine natural observer, Franklin continued:
"Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country."
(Quoted from The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Franklin [Cambridge 2008], pp. 119-120).
Camerarius’s eagle emblem brings us to sources that are less known or even unknown. Camerarius mentions that similar eagles can already be found on the medals of the Roman emperors. Also, Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) ordered a comparable eagle to be figured on a coin, and another emperor, Maximilian II (1527-1576), carried this eagle on his coat of arms. Camerarius does not indicate where he found this information. His source turned out to be an Italian book on the imprese (coats of arms) of illustrious men, entitled Le imprese illustri, by Girolamo Ruscelli (1500-1566), first published in 1566. Ruscelli gives a depiction of the eagle of Maximilian II (Fig. 5).
Ruscelli’s image and description show that the eagles of Charles V and Maximilian II were not one-headed but two-headed, and that they were not holding an olive branch but a laurel branch – the laurel being the traditional symbol for art and virtue. Ruscelli also explains why the lightning is pictured to the eagle’s left, and the laurel branch to its right: as the left hand is slower than the right hand, the Prince should therefore rule with his right (the laurel) rather than his left (the lightning). The reason Camerarius replaced the laurel with the olive is because the olive symbolises peace more clearly than the laurel, and additionally, as a biblical symbol, the olive branch had more authority and expressiveness than the pagan classical symbol of the laurel. Indirectly, Ruscelli’s eagle explains why Thomson wanted his single-headed eagle to look to the right: the American Eagle should be more inclined toward peace than war. From this point of view, it’s worth noting that in 1946, in the early days of the Iron Curtain, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill remarked to President Truman: “Mr. President, with the greatest respect, I would prefer the American eagle’s neck to be on a swivel so that it could face the olive branches or the arrows, as the occasion might demand.”
The American Great Seal and its heraldic eagle have a long prehistory. As an imperial double-headed bird with a laurel branch and lightning bolts (Charles V and Maximilian II), the eagle figures in Ruscelli’s book on imprese. Camerarius transformed this bird into a single-headed and rightward-looking bird, and gave it an olive branch instead of a laurel. Thomson, finally, gave the bird arrows instead of lightning bolts, as well as an appropriate motto. A proper understanding of the Great Seal’s prehistory leads to a better understanding and appreciation of its rich and complex symbolism.