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Learn About the History of the Official Seal of the U.S.

Learn About the History of the Official Seal of the U.S.

It’s on the back of every dollar bill. You can find it on your passport. It’s even on military uniform buttons. We’re talking about the United States seal, of course! Most people know it when they see it: an eagle grasping arrows in one claw and an olive branch in the other, with a banner stating E Pluribus Unum clutched in its beak.

The official seal of the United States isn’t just a symbol that’s become synonymous with our country—it also represents some of the earliest and most important themes of America’s history and independence. There’s a tremendous amount of history and symbolism contained within it.

The next time you get your change from a cashier or take a moment to inspect your passport, look out for the seal. Here’s what you should know about it.

What is the Official U.S. Seal?

The seal of the United States is an official emblem only embossed on certain document types such as foreign treaties and presidential proclamations—as well as your passport and the back of the one dollar bill. The actual metal seal is housed and displayed in the Exhibit Hall of the Department of State in Washington, D.C. The Secretary of State is the official custodian of the seal.

The seal itself is the official insignia of the United States. Think of it like the signature for the country. Instead of signing “The United States of America” on official documents, the official seal signifies that the document and everything contained within it represents the country. For example, that’s why it’s on your passport: because you represent the United States as an American citizen, no matter where you are in the world.

The History of the Official Seal

The history of the official seal of the U.S. dates all the way back to the beginning of our great nation. When the founding fathers of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams decided they wanted an official seal for the new nation in 1776, they went to work creating an emblem which showcased all the prized attributes of the country.

The delegates of the Constitutional Convention were convinced that a national coat of arms such as this new emblem would serve as a reminder that America was now an independent nation. The emblem was meant to be more than just a symbol of a free nation, but also of a free people with high hopes for the future of their country and citizens alike.

It took the founding fathers six years to design, finalize, and approve the seal, but on June 20th, 1782, the official seal of the United States of America was officially adopted. The symbols on the seal were a testament to the nation and all it endured.

Symbols Present on the Seal

When looking at the history of the official seal of the U.S., there are a variety of symbols worth noting.

  • On the front of the seal sits the eagle, our national bird, and it holds a scroll with our national motto of "E Pluribus Unum," which is Latin for "one from many" and stands for the fact that we are many states under one nation.
  • The eagle holds an olive branch in its right talon to symbolize peace and a bundle of thirteen arrows in its left to signify war.
  • The eagle has a shield over its body with thirteen red and white stripes, which symbolize the original 13 colonies. The shield is balanced on the eagle itself as a statement that Americans rely on their own virtue.
  • The blue in colorized depictions of the seal represents the President and Congress, as they play important roles in leading the citizens.
  • There is a cloud above the eagle's head with thirteen stars forming a constellation to denote that a new state is joining the nation, and is a nod to future growth.

While the eagle is most often used by itself, there’s actually a “back” of the seal, which many people are equally familiar with. Again, it’s on the back of a one dollar bill.

  • The back of the seal features a pyramid with 13 steps and the year 1776 in Roman numerals.
  • At the top of the pyramid is the Eye of Providence and the Latin motto of "Annuit Coeptis" flies overhead.
  • Below the pyramid, there is a scroll which reads "Novus Ordo Seclorum" meaning "New Order of the Ages" and refers to the beginning of a new nation in 1776 with America.

All of these symbols tell the story of our country, from its earliest inception up to today. From the depictions themselves to the Latin inscriptions, and even the color, it all adds up to a seal that’s uniquely, distinctly and undeniably American.

A Seal Known Around the World

As mentioned, the United States’ official seal plays an important part in representing our country on a global stage. No matter where you are in the world, anyone can identify this seal and know immediately that it represents America. It’s akin to signing “The United States” wherever it’s placed—our mark upon the world.

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