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Charles Thomson's preliminary drawing

A Cloud Surrounding the Constellation of Stars
Above the Eagle on Great Seal of the United States

A cloud appeared in the first committee's design for the reverse side of the Great Seal, Benjamin Franklin's idea: "Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Cloud, expressive of the divine Presence and Command."

In the final Great Seal, a cloud is part of the "crest" above the eagle. According to the official 1782 description, golden rays of light are "breaking through a cloud" that surrounds a constellation of 13 stars. The crest of Charles Thomson's preliminary drawing is shown above.

Detail of Blazon

On the government's dies and drawings of the Great Seal, the rays of light are blocked by the cloud. This symbolic light of Providence does not shine on the American Eagle, as the nation's Founders intended.

First painting of Great Seal Official Great Seal today
First painting (1785)               Today's government version

NOTE: Although the cloud is usually depicted as several cloud puffs, this symbolic element is referred to in the singular. And the number of cloud puffs is not specified. That's for the artist or engraver to decide.

Society of Cincinnati certificate (detail)
Detail of Society of the Cincinnati Membership Certificate

"I am mortified beyond expression when I view the clouds which have spread over the brightest morn that ever dawned upon any Country. In a word, I am lost in amazement when I behold what intrigue, the interested views of desperate characters, ignorance and jealousy of the minor part, are capable of effecting, as a scourge on the major part of our fellow Citizens of the Union: for it is hardly to be supposed that the great body of the people, tho' they will not act, can be so short sighted, or enveloped in darkness as not to see rays of a distant sun thro' all this mist of intoxication and folly." – George Washington to Henry Lee (Oct. 31, 1786)

Historical content is based on the official history of the Great Seal.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