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How the Great Seal Symbolizes Liberty and Freedom

Artwork by Cy Hundley

When Charles Thomson made the Bald Eagle the centerpiece of the Great Seal, he said it was "an American Eagle on the wing and rising." Whereas preliminary designs used the Goddess of Liberty, Thomson chose the Eagle to symbolize liberty, freedom, and independence.

Liberty in the Form of the Goddess of Youth Giving Support to the Bald Eagle, by Abijah Canfield (c. 1800) from an engraving by Edward Savage. Thomson emphasized "Independence" by explaining that the shield 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."

Prior to 1782, the Bald Eagle was rarely used as a symbol in America, but it quickly captured the public's interest. Americans took their national bird to heart, and it became popular in sculpture and art – often as the companion of Lady Liberty.

All three preliminary designs for the Great Seal emphasized the theme of liberty – usually represented as a female figure in various guises.

First Committee (1776)
"The Goddess of Liberty" supported the shield on one side. She wore "a corslet of armour alluding to the present Times" and held her "Spear & Cap."

Second Committee (1780)
On the reverse side, Liberty is seated in a chair holding an olive branch and her staff with a Liberty cap on top of it. At first the motto was Semper Libertas Virtute perennis, which means "Liberty everlasting because of (or by reason of) virtue." (This was shortened to Virtute perennis – "Everlasting because of virtue.")

The Latin word virtute is a form of virtus which originally meant manliness, strength, or bravery. It came to also mean excellence, moral worth, or virtue.

Third Committee (1782)
On the shield is a pillar topped by a "Phoenix in Flames" which was described as being "emblematical of the expiring Liberty of Britain, revived by her Descendants, in America." The accompanying motto, In Vindiciam Libertatis, means "In Defense of Liberty."

Liberty and the Eagle
Liberty holds the Constitution of the United States with the American Eagle at her side (below left). They originally stood above the Speaker's desk of the House of Representatives in 1819.

The Genius of America and the Bald Eagle (below right) are on the centerpiece of the sculptural pediment over the east central entrance to the U.S. Capitol building.

From the National Statuary Hall at the U. S. Capitol. Painting on the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

From the National Statuary Hall at the U. S. Capitol. High above Abraham Lincoln, in the Dome of the U.S. Capitol Rotunda (America's equivalent of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel), Liberty and the Eagle join other heroic figures in the Apotheosis of Washington.

Liberty and Eagle working together to protect us.

"Liberty relies upon itself, invites no one, promises nothing,
sits in calmness and light, is positive and composed,
and knows no discouragement." – Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Revolutionary vision
Share their vision for a better world.

Goddess of Liberty
Thomas Paine praises the Goddess of Liberty.

The image of Liberty feeding the eagle is a painting on glass by Abijah Canfield from Connecticut (c. 1800). It is based on the famous steel engraving by Edward Savage titled: "Liberty in the Form of the Goddess of Youth Giving Support to the Bald Eagle" (1796).

Historical content is based on the official history of the Great Seal.
Copyright ©2016 by John D. MacArthur.