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Official Description of America's Great Seal – June 20, 1782

Blazon of Great Seal in Charles Thomson's handwriting

Actual document The Great Seal adopted by Congress on June 20, 1782 was a written description of the two-sided design. No artwork was submitted to nor adopted by Congress.

The original form of the Great Seal is this document that uses technical language to precisely describe the appearance of the imagery. In heraldry, this description is called a "blazon" – the starting point for creating a die or illustration of a seal.

Transcript of the above handwritten description:

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 Atchievement & Reverse of the great seal for 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"

    Glossary of Heraldic Terms used in the Blazon
  • argent = silver
  • azure = blue
  • chief = top part of the shield
  • dexter = right
  • escutcheon = shield
  • gules = red
  • or = gold or yellow
  • paleways, pieces = vertical stripes on the shield
  • proper = the element's natural color
  • sinister = left

In its purest form, the Great Seal exists as words describing an image. An illustration based on this written description is called a "realization."

A parallel is found in music. Different singers and musicians will create unique performances of the same song based on its printed sheet music. For example, is the official Star Spangled Banner its original 19th-century sheet music or a 21st-century recording by a famous singer? They're both the Star Spangled Banner, but the written version is the original form, the template musicians use to create the song.

The problem is, many realizations and dies are not based on the original Great Seal blazon. Instead, they are derived from other realizations or dies that may be inaccurate. For example, all dies of the Great Seal copied an error in the first die that did not show the rays of light breaking through a cloud, as specified in the blazon.

Along with his description approved by Congress, Charles Thomson also submitted some brief remarks about the symbolism of the design, the only official explanation offered about the meaning of the Great Seal.

Historical content is based on the official history of the Great Seal.
Author and webwright: John D. MacArthur