Sunday, June 2, 2024

ARP314 The Great Seal

We last looked in on the Continental Congress in Episode 307, just after the victory at Yorktown. Congress received the victorious General Washington.  It had also begun pushing off most of its work onto executive secretaries, particularly, the Secretary of Treasury - Robert Morris.

The Great Seal
Even so, Congress found itself in an ever-increasingly precarious position.  With the war coming to an end, states found it less important than ever to work together, or to support the army financially.  Congress had kept the government on life support mostly by receiving financial assistance from France.  But with North America becoming less important to the French war effort, and with the French government’s finances straining as well, Congress could not rely on much more help from that source. 

So, in early 1782, Congress decided to focus on another pressing issue: approving the country’s official seal.

The use of seals was an ancient practice, predating a time when most people could read or write.  A leader would place a seal on official documents to show that those documents had the authority of law.  While there was no necessity to have a seal, Members of Congress thought it was an important tradition to maintain for the new nation.

First Committee

The process of designing a seal ended up taking years. Congress first looked at the idea in 1776.  It appointed a committee of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson to work on a design.  Each member of the committee suggested his own design.

Franklin's proposed design
Franklin wanted an image of Moses standing over the divided Red Sea, and drowning the Pharaoh. His suggested motto: Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.  Jefferson suggested another biblical scene, with the children of Israel being led through the wilderness by cloud during the day and a pillar of fire by night.  On the reverse, Jefferson wanted images of Hengist and Horsa, the two brothers who supposedly led the Anglo Saxon invasion of Britain in the 5th century.  Adams wanted a reproduction of an Italian painting known as The Judgment of Hercules where the hero had to choose between a path of self-indulgence, or a more difficult path of honor and duty to others.

After none of their ideas seemed to gather a consensus, and all seemed to lack any good understanding of heraldry, the committee sought the help of a French artist living in Philadelphia,  Pierre Eugene du Simitiere.  His proposal included the symbols of six European nations that had populated North America, with a female representing liberty on one side and a soldier on the other side. Above them was the eye of providence in a triangle.  Below was the motto E Pluribus Unum (Latin for, out of many, one).

Du Simitière's original sketch & restored version
The committee reported their various suggestions to Congress.  The delegates generally seemed to prefer the du Simitière design with a few modifications.  This included removing the soldier and adding a second lady justice holding a sword.  They also simply added the wording “Seal of the United States of America” with 1776 in Roman numerals.  Even with the changes, Congress decided it was not impressed with the final choice and tabled the matter.

Second Committee

Congress forgot about the seal until 1780, when it appointed a second committee to consider a new design.  The members this time were James Lovell, John Morin Scott, and William Churchill Houston.  

Hopkinson Obverse
This second Committee did not each try to come up with their own designs.  Instead they consulted with Francis Hopkinson, a former delegate who was serving on the Admiralty Court of Pennsylvania at the time.  Hopkinson is credited with designing the US flag in 1777, and also worked with du Simitière to design a seal for the State of New Jersey.

Hopkinson proposed a shield with 13 red and white diagonal stripes.  Above them would be a constellation of 13 stars.  Standing on one side would be an Indian warrior holding a bow and arrows.  On the other side was a woman holding an olive branch.  The motto Bello vel pace apparatus (meaning “prepared for war or peace”). 

Hopkinson Reverse
The reverse side had a woman seated in a chair holding an olive branch and a staff topped by a liberty cap.  The motto Virtute perennis, meaning “Everlasting because of virtue” and the Roman numerals 1776 were written across the bottom.

After discussions with the committee, Hopkinson removed the Indian, replacing him with a soldier.  They also shortened the motto to Bello vel paci (for war or peace).  The committee then presented this version to Congress.  Once again, Congress failed to approve the proposed seal and let the matter sit.

Third Committee

Two years later, in May of 1782, Congress appointed a third committee to revisit the issue.  Congress initially appointed John Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, and Elias Boudinot to the committee, although Arthur Lee replaced Rutledge at some point.  Once again, the committee relied on an outside consultant. William Barton took up the challenge this time. Barton came from a prestigious Philadelphia family.  The young man had recently begun his career as a lawyer.  Importantly for this job, he had studied heraldry in England for several years before returning to Philadelphia in 1779.

Barton Obverse
Barton’s initial suggestion of a rooster was rejected by the committee. His second design showed a shield with 13 red and white stripes broken up by a torch.  The shield was surrounded by a blue border with 13 white stars.  On one side was a maiden holding a dove.  On the other side was a soldier.  Above the shield was a helmet and above that was an eagle.  The motto above was In Vindiciam Libertatis (In Defense of Liberty) and below Virtus sola invicta (Only virtue unconquered).  For the reverse Barton suggested a pyramid of 13 steps and above that the eye of providence.  The mottos Deo Favente ("With God favoring") and Perennis (Everlasting).  The pyramid design was taken from one Hopkinson had designed earlier and was being used on the $50 Continental note.

Once again Congress reviewed the suggestions but did, once again, not give a final approval.  Instead, it turned over the results of all three committees to Charles Thomson, the Secretary of Congress. They asked him to come up with a final proposal based on all the work of all three earlier committees.

Barton Reverse
Thomson took Barton’s eagle and made it the main element of the front side. The eagle had a shield on his chest with 13 red and white stripes.  It also clasped an olive branch in one talon and a bundle of arrows in the other.  A ribbon containing the motto E Pluribus Unum was displayed on a ribbon above the eagle.  Above that was a circle with a blue field and containing 13 white stars.

For the reverse side, Thomson used Barton’s design of the 13 step pyramid, adding a triangle around the eye of providence and changing the mottos to Annuit Cœptis Novus Ordo Seclorum (he favors new world order).  

Thomson submitted his proposals to Congress on June 20, 1782, without an actual design - just a written description.  Congress approved his suggestions that same day.  Thomson had a brass die cut made over the summer.  It saw its first use on September 16, when Thomson used the seal on an authorization to General Washington to negotiate an exchange of prisoners.

Thomson would continue to use the seal until 1789, when the newly elected President Washington asked him to transfer it to the Department of Foreign Affairs, which later became the Department of State.  The seal would be used for diplomatic documents.


The seal aside, there were some issues that Congress focused on during this time.  When London sent General Guy Carleton to take command of British forces in America, the new government hoped he might be able to work out a peaceful compromise with the Americans that might end the war quickly, but not necessarily with total separation.  Carleton quickly discovered there was little to no chance of that.  The Asgill Affair had soured relations between the two sides.  But even without that, there was little chance that the US would do anything that prevented its goal of complete independence.  It was also honor bound to remain in the war until Britain also came to peace terms with France.

Thomson Design
Carleton did find one issue that might provide Britain with an opening.  The independent Republic of Vermont had been in existence for four years by this time.  The Congress still refused to recognize it, knowing that doing so would probably cause New York to break from the Union.

Vermont, of course, was getting very frustrated by all of this.  In 1781, Vermont considered expanding its borders to several towns in New York and New Hampshire who expressed a desire to become part of Vermont.  Since New York and New Hampshire did not recognize Vermont’s sovereignty, the Green Mountain State saw little need to respect the sovereignty of New York and New Hampshire.  If there was a potential border war with its neighbors, then expanding its borders gave Vermont a better chance of defending itself.

Vermont also entered into negotiations with General Haldimand in Quebec, who sought to drive a wedge into the patriot cause by discussing British support for Vermont’s sovereignty.

Seeing this as a threat, Congress once again brought up the idea of recognizing Vermont as the 14th State.  In early 1782, a majority of seven states were ready to do so.  Under the Articles, such a measure would require nine states.  Two of those states in the minority, New York and New Hampshire, would have to acquiesce in some way, even if those nine votes had been reached.

Several of the other states also recognized that there were other separatist movements in their states that might cause future problems.  Virginia and North Carolina were particularly concerned about such movements in their own western lands.  They did not want to set a precedent that Congress could simply divide up states without the consent of the state being divided.

By spring of 1782, the controversy had at least subsided.  While this still was a festering issue, Congress ended up doing nothing of consequence, and just let the issue linger.

Party Time

Finances remained the biggest problem.  If peace did come soon, Congress was not sure who the army might react to being disbanded without pay.  If peace did not come soon, Congress was not sure how it could keep an army in the field.  News of the loss of the French Navy in the Battle of the Saintes made clear they would be getting no further support from the French Navy.

Minister Luzerne

Minister Luzerne, the French ambassador in Philadelphia informed Congress that not only was King Louis unlikely to send any money, or much of anything else.  The King also noted that he would no longer pay to support the American diplomats in Paris.  He also requested that Congress give Minister Benjamin Franklin the power to start settling accounts in France for all the loans that France had given to America during the war.

Congress, for years, had no money and no power to collect money.  Its loans from Europe were drying up and collectors were starting to come knocking.  Congress embarked on a begging campaign, sending two ministers, Joseph Montgomery of Pennsylvania and Jesse Root of Connecticut, to visit state legislatures in New England and pass the collections plate. They also sent John Rutledge of South Carolina and George Clymer of Pennsylvania to put pressure on the southern states.  The delegates hoped that an in-person appeal might have better luck.  It did not.  The efforts fell flat, collecting only enough payments to cover about one day’s worth of government expenses.  

Even the delegates personally were broke. They had no money to pay themselves either.  One member of Congress, John Witherspoon, wrote to a friend that he had to leave Congress because he could no longer support his own expenses in attending it.

Of course, like Americans today, when you are dead broke, deep in debt and see no way out, there is only one thing you can do: throw a raging kickass party!

Luzerne saw the American cause as stumbling, both with France and due to its own inability to fund the war.  He believed that the leaders needed a morale boost and also to show the world that France and Americans were still close allies.  The excuse he found was the birth of the Dauphin.  King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette welcomed their first child into the world in October 1781.  This was a big deal in France because the King and Queen had been married for eleven years without producing a child. In America, where monarchy was not really something to be celebrated anymore, Congress had passed a resolution in May, congratulating the king on his impressive act of procreation, but then moved on with other things.

Luzerne, however, latched onto the event as an excuse to throw a massive party in Philadelphia to celebrate the King of France.  He sent out more than a thousand invitations to officers, politicians and prominent citizens all around Philadelphia, and beyond. Generals Washington and Rochambeau were invited.

Luzerne built a pavilion next to his house on Chestnut Street. He put Captain Charles L’Enfant in charge of designing the pavilion and the area around it.  Years later L’Enfant, would be called on to design the entire city of Washington, DC   

Luzerne’s party got Philadelphia to close surrounding streets to traffic on July 15 so that the party could spill into the streets.  It was good that they did so because more than 10,000 Philadelphians turned out just to watch the party from the streets.  Music welcomed the guests, who enjoyed dancing into the evening.  At 9:00 PM, the music paused so that everyone could enjoy a display of fireworks.  The banquet began at midnight and the champagne flowed freely.  The party finally broke up a little before dawn, as everyone made their way home.

A few people questioned the propriety of throwing a lavish party when money was so tight.  But Luzerne had funded the party with his private finances.  Several questioned whether a republic should be celebrating the continuation of a monarchy.  But overall, it proved to the world that America was still closely allied with France and that Britain would not succeed in its attempts to divide that alliance.

Purple Heart

Another first that summer took place in the army.  Military commendations in this era were rare.  Officers would occasionally receive some token of appreciation in the form of a sword or a coin struck for a particular victory.  It was almost never that enlisted men were recognized with anything more than an extra ration of rum or a kind word.

General Washington sought to change that.  He recognized that many men had served through the many difficult years of the war without any special recognition.  Enlisted soldiers, who had sacrificed so much for their country, should receive recognition.

As part of his General orders on August 7, Washington announced that 

Honorary Badges of distinction are to be conferred on the veteran Non commissioned officers and soldiers of the army, who have served more than three years with bravery, fidelity and good conduct, for this purpose a narrow piece of white cloath of an angular form is to be fixed to the left arm on the uniform Coats. Non commissioned officers and soldiers who have served with equal reputation more than six years are to be distinguished by two pieces of cloth set on parallel to each other in a simular form

Washington then added in his orders, 

should any who are not entitled to these honors have the insolence to assume the badges of them they shall be severely punished. On the other hand it is expected those gallant men who are thus designated will on all occasions be treated with particular confidence and consideration.

These white badges were permitted simply based on length of service. For those soldiers who merited special notice, Washington’s orders continued: 

The General ever desirous to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of Military merit, directs that whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings over the left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth, or silk, edged with narrow lace or binding. Not only instances of unusual gallantry, but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way shall meet with a due reward. Before this favour can be conferred on any man, the particular fact, or facts, on which it is to be grounded must be set forth to the Commander in chief accompanied with certificates from the Commanding officers of the regiment and brigade to which the Candadate for reward belonged, or other incontestable proofs, and upon granting it, the name and regiment of the person with the action so certified are to be enrolled in the book of merrit which will be kept at the orderly office. Men who have merited this last distinction to be suffered to pass all guards and sentinals which officers are permitted to do.

The first recipient of the Purple Heart was Sergeant Elijah Churchill of the Second Continental Light dragoons.  Churchill had led a raid on Long Island that previous fall, using whaleboats to defeat a superior force, capturing 300 prisoners and destroying enemy supplies. 

Badge of Military Merit
The second recipient was Sergeant William Brown, who was part of a forlorn hope at Yorktown.  He and his men pushed into the British redoubt just before the main army under Colonel Alexander Hamilton charged. Their goal was to sow confusion among the defenders.  All of them expected to die.  Brown was badly wounded but had managed to survive.

The third recipient, Sergeant Daniel Bissell was a Continental soldier who deserted in 1781 and joined the British in New York. There, he served under Benedict Arnold.  Unbeknownst to almost everyone, Bissell had done all this in an effort to serve as a spy for General Washington, a role he performed for more than a year.

As far as we know, these were the only three purple heart awards that were given during the American Revolution.  That award, of course, is remembered in the military to this day.

Next week, we head south for the British evacuation of Savannah.

- - -

Next Episode 315 Evacuation of Savannah 

Previous Episode 313 Crawford Expedition

 Contact me via email at

 Follow the podcast on Twitter @AmRevPodcast

 Join the Facebook group, American Revolution Podcast 

 Join American Revolution Podcast on Quora 
Discuss the AmRev Podcast on Reddit

American Revolution Podcast Merch!

T-shirts, hoodies, mugs, pillows, totes, notebooks, wall art, and more.  Get your favorite American Revolution logo today.  Help support this podcast.

American Revolution Podcast is distributed 100% free of charge. If you can chip in to help defray my costs, I'd appreciate whatever you can give.  Make a one time donation through my PayPal account. You may also donate via Venmo (@Michael-Troy-20) or Zelle (send to

Click here to see my Patreon Page
You can support the American Revolution Podcast as a Patreon subscriber.  This is an option making monthly pledges.  Patreon support will give you access to Podcast extras and help make the podcast a sustainable project.

An alternative to Patreon is SubscribeStar.  For anyone who has problems with Patreon, you can get the same benefits by subscribing at SubscribeStar.

Help Support this podcast on ""

Visit the American Revolution Podcast Bookshop.  Support local bookstores and this podcast!

Signup for the AmRev Podcast Mail List

* indicates required

Further Reading


Great Seal:

Great Seal of the United States:

“Motion Concerning Documents on Vermont, 3 April 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“Continental Congress Motion on Vermont, 5 December 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“General Orders, 7 August 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

The first Purple Hearts awarded by Gen. Washington to Three Connecticut Soldiers

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

The Great Seal of the United States, US Dept. of State, 2003. 

Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1789 Vol. 22, Jan 1 - Aug 9, 1782. Washington: GPO, 1914.

Patterson, Richard S. The Eagle and the Shield: A History of the Great Seal of the United States, Dept. of State, 1976. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Fleming, Thomas The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown, Harper Collins, 2007.  

Montross, Lynn The Reluctant Rebels, Harper & Brothers, 1950 (borrow on

Patterson, Richard S. The Eagle and the Shield: A History of the Great Seal of the United States, Dept. of State, 1976 (on 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

No comments:

Post a Comment