On This Date in History: When an American politician isn’t sure what to do or does not want to make a decision, he tends to set up a committee. That way, if its a good idea, he can take credit and if it doesn’t work out so well, then he can just say he was following the committee’s recommendation. This tradition goes back to the beginning as the founders were confounded as to what kind of symbol they wanted for their new nation. Over a period of 6 years, three separate committees studied the situation in an effort to come up with an acceptable national coat of arms that was needed for the authentification of official documents. So, who would be the members of such a committee. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had done pretty well with a Declaration of Independence so they were given the first shot.
The three creators of the declaration were appointed to the new mission just hours after the formal adoption of the Declaration of Independence. I suppose the work of a founding father is never done. They had turned to scholarly writings of the past for inspiration and guidance for the declaration and for a symbol, they looked to the bible and classical mythology from which to take their cues. Now, Jefferson is often called a “Deist” or non-Christian by some modern historians so it is interesting that he proposed an image of the Israelites passage through the wilderness as they were led by a Divine cloud and pillar of fire. Adams favored Hercules choosing between a path of virtue or self-indulgence. For his part, Franklin proposed the likeness of Moses commanding the Red Sea to swallow up pharoah. They were stuck.
So, they called on the help of a consultant. A Philadelphia artist who hailed from Switzerland, Pierre Eugene Du Simitiere, told them that the greatest virtue of the United States was that it was a new nation forged together by many people of differing backgrounds. So, he suggested a giant shield that featured the emblems of the 6 most common European nations of most Americans origin. Around that shield was 13 smaller ones to represent the 13 states, linked by a gold chain. Holding up the shield were the goddesses of Justice and Liberty. Above all of that was the Eye of Providence and on the bottom was the motto, E Pluribus Unum, which means “Out of Many, One.” The committe chose Franklin’s Moses idea for the back and Du Simitiere’s idea for the front. But, the Continental Congress must not have thought that these guys would come up with something so quickly because they were preoccupied with the Revolutionary War and tabled the issue. A few years later, in 1780, a second committee was formed and they chose a front side of a shield with 13 stripes that was held up by a soldier and a woman holding an olive branch. The crest featured a constellation of 13 stars. On the back was an image of the Goddess of Liberty. Apparently no one liked that one either because it wasn’t tabled; it was rejected out of hand.
In 1782, they tried again. This time they turned to William Barton who was an authority on heraldry. He came up with a front side of a European eagle within a crest and for the reverse side, he proposed an incomplete 13-stepped pyramid. By this time, the Continental Congress had all sorts of designs and so they just shoved them all over to the Secretary of Congress, Charles Thomson. Thomson took a little bit of this and a little bit of that from each idea to synthesize them into a single entity. He kept E Pluribus Unum from the first committee, the olive branch and shield from the second committee and the third proposal of an eagle and a pyramid. But, he decided to substitute a rising American Bald Eagle for the European Heraldic Eagle. He made the grand bird of America the centerpiece with a constellation of 13 stars above its head to support the motto E Pluribus Unum. He put the shield with the stripes on its chest with the stripes on the shield arranged vertically and he raised the eagle’s wings. He placed the olive branch in one of its talons and in the other he had the bird clutching 13 arrows. I guess he wanted to add his own personal touch. On the reverse side, the unfinished pyramid found a home, topped by the Eye of Providence with the latin phrase Novus Ordo Seclorum below and the latin Annuit Coeptis above. On this date in 1782, the Continental Congress instantly approved the design of the Great Seal of the United States. Seven years later, the first federal Congress similarly adopted the seal and placed it in the custody of the nation’s first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, who may or may not have still been seeting over his Israelites in the wilderness idea being rejected.
Conventional wisdom is that the Eye of Providence and Annuit Coeptis, which means “He has favored our undertaking”, as a symbol of the Founders’ Faith. The eye was put in a radiant triangle which is an ancient symbol of humanity’s accumulation of knowledge. The constellation of stars bunched together as one illustrates the motto (which is found just below) and the radiance that shines through is emblematic of the new nation taking its place among the others. The eagle is a symbol of power with the 13 stripes on the shield represents the unification of the 13 original states. The arrows in the talons shows America’s ability to make war with the olive branch and its 13 leaves and 13 fruits indicating the power to make peace. I’ve also heard it suggested that the arrows and olive branch symbolize the idea that the nation makes peace through strength. The unfinished pyramid symbolizes the unfinished nation as one of strength and endurance. The base is adorned with 1776 in roman numerals. Novus Ordo Seclorum means “A new order of the ages” and proclaims the rise of the revolutionary concept of a nation founded on freedom.
Now, over time many people have tried to come up with almost conspiratorial ideas about these symbols as they suggest some sort of secrets hidden in Freemasonry. But, I found an interesting take by an early 20th century theologian named Emmet Fox who took the position that America is part of God’s plan; that in order for people to have the freedom to know the singular God, they have to have political freedom. Hence, the United States provided that conduit. Fox says that the motto illustrates man’s initial idea that he is separate from the Divine but the “Light of Truth” dawns on him and he progresses from having many gods to the One God. He suggests that there is a spiritual significance to the number 13 and also for the number 4. After all, the Declaration of Independence was officially adoped on July 4th, which was the same day that the order was given to come up with the Great Seal. The original inauguration day was March 4 and the President serves 4 year terms, which is not duplicated in any other country. He points out that both Novus Ordo Seclorum and Annuit Coeptis came from Virgil and that “nothing could better describe exactly what America is doing for the world, the fact that she has a Divine mission.” He says that the olive branch being in the right claw and the arrows in the left is significant. He has the similar notion that it denotes peace and good-will are to be the primary consideration with defense only as a last resort but he adds that, metaphysically, the olive branch stands for affirmation and the arrows for denial. It is important, says Fox, to first affirm the presence of God. An interesting observation is that most national escutcheons, such as the American shield, are supported by something. The fact that the American Shield rests on the eagle’s breast shows that it needs not external or material reinforcement. Fox goes on the detail many other items which may be of interest to some. But, he does say that the eye is “striking and remarkable.” He says that the ancient all-seeing eye is the “Single Eye” of which Jesus spoke when He said, “When the eye is single, the whole body is full of light.” Fox concludes that when an individual or a nation puts God first, and everything else second,” then the whole body, the whole life of that person or that nation, will be healthy and prosperous.”
So, what is the truth of the symbols of the Great Seal? It’s hard to say. The founders were well steeped in scholarship of antiquity. The ideals put forth on the Declaration of Independence were not new, but instead it was the way that Jefferson expressed them that makes the document stand out. The symbols collected for the Great Seal also were not new. In spite of what modern scholars may suggest, the founders were indeed greatly influenced by some form or Christianity. As we have seen, Jefferson was in favor of a Judao-Christian related symbol to be the emblem for the nation as was Franklin. However, the fact that ultimately, the Contiental Congress chose not to include any overt references to the Christian Faith in the Great Seal is of some importance. Perhaps they wished to cloak their faith such as Fox suggests. Or, maybe they were being careful to not tie their objectives for the nation to any religion in order to symbolize a desire for a secular government. Unfortunately, I do not believe that Thomson or anyone else left notes or minutes that describe their line of thinking. In any event, the Great Seal of the United States does seem to stand out among nations…and maybe that was the intent all along.
Weather Bottom Line: The morning storms on Saturday held us only to 90 for the first part of the weekend. Snow White and I went for a bike ride and it really wasn’t too bad. Today will be much hotter and more uncomfortable though. The models advertise a decent shortwave in Iowa during the day but tend to want to just kill it by the time it gets to Illinois as it makes what seems to me a bee-line for our area. I’m not so sure why it would just go away as they suggest. I would think that Sunday evening we should get the left overs at least if not something decent. I mean, we’ll certainly be hot and there will be ample moisture. Provided there is not some sort of big cap, I would think that there is no reason for that guy to hold together in some form. Okay..maybe not severe, but still some storms. The SPC seems to agree as they have the slight risk area kinda nosing down toward our area. After this, the next several days seem similar. Unseasonably hot and humid with no real line for storms to come our way but always the possibility of some guys wandering through.