Conspiracy theories have been and will continue to be a staple of politics. I suspect that the allure of conspiracy theories is tied very closely to the part of human nature that is drawn toward gossip. And like gossip, some conspiracy theories may even be true, or at least an exaggerated version of the truth. However, often such theories trick people into boxing with shadows when they could be expending their energy on other, real problems.
One persistent conspiracy meme that is prevalent among conservatives is the idea that the portions of the Great Seal of the United States, as seen on the reverse side of the dollar bill, contain elements that represent a Free-Mason or Illuminati conspiracy.
This is an unfortunate concept because it keeps conservatives from recognizing that, in the on-going conflict between conservatives and liberals over the appropriate role of Religion in Government, The Great Seal of the United States provides one of the best evidences of the conservative position.
What follows is a review of the history of the Great Seal, what it means, and why conservatives should embrace it as did the founders.
July 4th, 1776: The colonies had just officially declared their independence from Britain. In one of its first post-declaration actions, the Continental Congress formed a new committee comprised of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, all of whom had been key participants in drafting the declaration. This new committee was assigned to design a Seal for the new United States of America. This committee enlisted the help of an heraldic artist named Pierre Eugène Du Simitière and during the next month the committee worked to design a great seal for the new nation. Each member proposed a design.
John Adams suggested that the seal employ an allegorical engraving by Simon Gribelin known as “The Choice” which depicts young Hercules as feminine personifications of Virtue and Vice attempt to convince him of one path over the other. It was based on the classic tale told by Xenophon .
Thomas Jefferson proposed a depiction of the children of Israel guided through the wilderness by a daytime cloud and a nighttime pillar of fire, and on the reverse side the first Anglo-Saxon settlers in Britain, according to legend Hengist and Horsa .
Benjamin Franklin, the only mason in the group, suggested an image of “Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity” and the motto “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”
Simitière, who was versed in the traditions of heraldry, presented a depiction of a shield divided into six portions, each alluding to the countries from which the colonists had come: England (a rose), Scotland (a thistle), Ireland (a harp), France (Fleur-de-lis), Germany (Imperial Eagle), and Holland (Belgic Lion). The shield was garnished with the initials of each of the thirteen states. On the right side, the shield was supported by a Goddess of Liberty, in an armor corslet holding a spear and cap in her right hand and resting her left hand on an anchor. On the left side of the shield was an American soldier in hunting attire, carrying a tomahawk, powder horn, pouch, and rifle. Above the shield was The Eye of Providence inside of a triangle, radiating glory, and below it the motto: “E Pluribus Unum” (“Out of many, One”).
On August 20th the committee presented its joint proposal. On the obverse side of the seal they implemented most of Simitière’s design, modified only to replace the soldier with the Goddess of Justice holding a sword in her right hand and a balance scale in her left and to remove the anchor. On the reverse side they used Franklin’s depiction of Moses and Pharaoh and his motto.
This design, however, was not approved by the Congress.
It was not until four years later that a second committee was formed. It was comprised of James Lovell from Massachusetts, John Morin Scott from New York, and William Churchhill Houston from New Jersey. They enlisted the aide of Francis Hopkinson from Philadelphia Pennsylvania. Hopkinson had signed the Declaration of Independence and designed the flag that the Congress had adopted on June 14th 1777. Hopkinson is credited with most of the work of the second committee.
On May 10th, they presented a design. On the obverse side, a shield with 13 diagonal stripes of red and white supported by a sword-wielding warrior on the right and a woman bearing an Olive Branch on the left. Above was a radiant constellation of 13 stars, and below the motto “Bello vel Paci” (“For war or for peace”). On the reverse was a sitting woman holding a staff and cap, personifying Liberty. Above her was the motto “Semper” (“Always”). This motto was later replaced, however, with “Virtute perennis” (“Everlasting because of virtue”).
A final committee was formed on May 4th, 1782. The founders felt that they needed to have a national seal, as evidence of their independence, at the signing of the impending peace treaty. The committee consisted of Arthur Lee from Virginia, Arthur Middleton from South Carolina, and Elias Boudinot from New Jersey. Lee, however, was soon replaced by John Rutledge, also from South Carolina. They enlisted the talent of 28-year-old William Barton, who produced two proposals in less than five days. The committee submitted his second design to the Congress on May 9th. The obverse side was very similar to the design of the second committee, with additional Laurel Leaves, spangled ribbon, and a flaming phoenix. On the reverse side they placed an incomplete pyramid, The Eye of Providence above it, with the words “Deo Favente Perennis” (“God favoring everlasting”). The reverse side was probably based on Hopkinson’s 1778 design of the $50 bill which had an incomplete pyramid and the word “Perennis” combined with Simitière’s Eye of Providence inside a triangle from the first committee’s design.
In June of 1782 Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress, was assigned to come up with the final design for the seal. Thomson reviewed the reports and designs of the previous three committees, and then created his own design, incorporating elements from the others. Thomson took his design to Barton who made a few minor changes. Thomson submitted his design to the Congress on June 20th and it was adopted that same day.
Here is the official blazon of the seal, followed by explanatory remarks by Thomson:
The Secretary of the United States in Congress assembled to whom were referred the several reports of committees on the device for a great seal, to take order, reports
That the Device for an Armorial Achievement & Reverse of the great seal of the United States in Congress assembled is as follows.–
Paleways of thirteen pieces Argent and Gules: a Chief, Azure. The Escutcheon on the breast of the American bald Eagle displayed, proper, holding in his dexter talon an Olive branch, and in his sinister a bundle of thirteen arrows, all proper, & in his beak a scroll, inscribed with this Motto. “E pluribus unum”.
For the Crest
Over the head of the Eagle which appears above the Escutcheon, A Glory, Or, breaking through a cloud, proper, & surrounding thirteen stars forming a Constellation, Argent, on an Azure field.
A Pyramid unfinished. In the Zenith an Eye in a triangle surrounded with a glory proper. Over the Eye these words “Annuit Coeptis”. On the base of the pyramid the numerical letters MDCCLXXVI & underneath the following motto. “novus ordo seclorum”
The Escutcheon is composed of the chief & pale, the two most honorable ordinaries. The Pieces, paly, represent the several states all joined in one solid compact entire, supporting a Chief, which unites the whole & represents Congress. The Motto alludes to this union. The pales in the arms are kept closely united by the chief and the Chief depends upon that union & the strength resulting from it for its support, to denote the Confederacy of the United States of America & the preservation of their union through Congress.
The colours of the pales are those used in the flag of the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valor, and Blue, the colour of the Chief signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice. The Olive branch and arrows denote the power of peace & war which is exclusively vested in Congress. The Constellation denotes a new State taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers. The Escutcheon is born 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.–
Reverse. The pyramid signifies Strength and Duration: The Eye over it & 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 Æra, which commences from that date.–
The motto “Annuit Cœptis” literally means “he nods in assent to the things that have been started,” and in combination with the Eye of Providence symbol is officially translated as “He (God) has favored our undertakings.”
It is a shame that our modern culture has largely forgotten the art heraldry. Symbolic tradition has been mostly forgotten and as a culture we don’t understand the symbolic messages our forebears meant to send us.
The explicit old-testament symbolism employed by Franklin and Jefferson in their proposals is interesting as neither were trained in heraldry. Jefferson and Franklin were deists, but they were clearly not deists by strict modern definitions. When compared to modern Deism, their beliefs allow for a more involved God. This view of God comes out in their proposed symbols for the nation. The seals proposed by Franklin and Jefferson (who also coined the phrase separation of church and state) would be declared unconstitutional by the ACLU and activist judges of today.
Jefferson’s proposed seal makes it clear that he did not intend the separation to the extreme that the ACLU and others interpret it.
The final version of the Great Seal, which we obviously still employ today, expresses the same invocation of God in our political institutions. It indicates that God should nod in assent to what we undertake as a nation.
The fact that the pyramid representing our nation is unfinished but is being built in the mirror image of the triangle containing the eye of providence above it expresses the notion that our nation is built in the image of an ideal established by God.
Thomson explained that the presence of the eye of providence in the Seal as ratified by congress alluded to “the many signal interpositions of providence in favour of the American cause.”
This is the official symbol of the United States, and its symbolism expresses what our founders thought were the guiding principles of our nation. As we have forgotten the meanings of the symbols, we have forgotten the principles as well.
The Great Seal of the United States is one of the greatest evidences that our modern concept of the extent of separation of church and state is far removed from that of the founders.
As for masonic connections, Franklin was the only mason among the committee members, and his proposal did not include the symbols that are mistaken for masonic symbols today. The great eye is a traditional heraldic symbol for providence in government. It may have entered into heraldic symbolism from masonry centuries earlier, but during the founding, its use does not imply any masonic intent.
It is time for conservatives to let go of the conspiracy theories and embrace the meaning of the Great Seal and what it tells us about the founding principles of our great nation.