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Design Process
 1st Committee
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Latin Mottoes
 E Pluribus Unum
 Annuit Coeptis
 Novus Ordo Seclorum

Symbols (front)
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 Arrows
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Symbols (back)
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 MDCCLXXVI

Great Seals
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 First Painting
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Myths
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Themes
 Unity
 Peace
 Liberty
 Thirteen

Related
 Wild Turkey
 President's Seal
 Sightings
 Resources



Detail of a Cy Hundley's 2004 realization of the Great Seal.

The Bundle of Thirteen Arrows
in the Eagle's Left Talon on the U.S. Seal

Hopkinson's preliminary obverse (detail) Arrows were first suggested by Francis Hopkinson, the consultant and artist on the second Great Seal committee. In his preliminary design, one of the two figures supporting the shield was an Indian warrior holding a bow & arrow and carrying a quiver of arrows (shown here).

The other figure was a lady representing Peace bearing an olive branch. Beneath them was a Latin motto that meant "Prepared in War or in Peace."

When Charles Thomson put together the final design for the Great Seal, he placed a bundle of arrows in the eagle's left talon. The final Great Seal design specifies: The American bald Eagle holding... in his sinister [left talon] a bundle of thirteen arrows.

Detail of Blazon

The official explanation describes the symbolism: "The Olive branch and arrows denote the power of peace & war which is exclusively vested in Congress."

Detail of Explanation.

In heraldry, the symbol in a figure's right hand is more significan than the one in its left hand. All dies of the Great Seal have shown the eagle facing the olive branch on its right side – further emphasizing the power of peace.

The eagle on the Seal of the President used to face the arrows.

Thomson's sketch (detail)

Charles Thomson specified a bundle of arrows, and in his preliminary sketch (above) showed the thirteen arrows tightly aligned – a symbol of "strength in unity" that's found in the traditional cultures everywhere, from the Romans to the Iroquois.

We Are Unbreakable

Rabbi Marc Gellman
A Prayer for America, Yankee Stadium, September 23, 2001

The Talmud and the African tribe, the Masai tribe, both teach a wisdom for our wounded world. They both taught:

Sticks alone can be broken by a child, but sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.

The fears and sorrows of this moment are so heavy, they can break us if we try to bear them alone. But if we are bundled together – if we stick together – we are unbreakable.

And we shall do far more than merely survive. We shall overcome. We shall overcome the forces of hatred, without allowing hatred to unbundle us. We shall overcome the forces of terror, without using fear to unbundle us.

So in all our comings and our goings, from this time forth, let us remember: That the person next to you, in front of you, behind you, is not merely an obstacle to your free and unfettered life. They are a part of this bundle, that keeps you and each of us from breaking.

Let us never again view our fellow New Yorkers, our fellow Americans, our fellow citizens of the world, as limitations on our life or freedom. But rather as the moral twine that binds us, and saves us, and delivers us from evil.

A bundle of arrows was also an emblem on early paper money.

"After much occasion to consider the folly and mischiefs of a state of warfare, and the little or no advantage obtained even by those nations who have conducted it with the most success, I have been apt to think that there has never been, or ever will be, any such thing as a good war, or a bad peace." – Benjamin Franklin to Jonathan Shipley, June 10, 1782

The Eagle and the Arrow – An Aesop's Fable
An Eagle was soaring through the air. Suddenly it heard the whizz of an Arrow, and felt the dart pierce its breast. Slowly it fluttered down to earth. Its lifeblood pouring out. Looking at the Arrow with which it had been shot, the Eagle realized that the deadly shaft had been feathered with one of its own plumes.

Moral: We often give our enemies the means for our own destruction.

For an eloquent expression of the Great Seal's war and peace symbolism,
read President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize lecture.



Historical content is based on the official history of the Great Seal.
Copyright ©2014 by John D. MacArthur.