Unfinished Pyramid on the Reverse Side
of the Great Seal of the United States
The pyramid was originally suggested by William Barton, the consultant and artist on the third Great Seal committee in May 1782. For the seal's reverse side, he suggested, "A Pyramid of thirteen Strata, (or Steps)." His sketch is shown here on the left.
Barton's sketch and his inspiration, the emblem on the $50 bill.
Barton was undoubtedly influenced by the pyramid on the $50 Continental Currency note (right) designed in 1778 by Francis Hopkinson, the heraldry consultant and artist on the second Great Seal committee (1780).
For the final design of the reverse side of the Great Seal, Charles Thomson specified "A Pyramid unfinished." He put a triangle around the eye of Providence, as suggested by the first committee.
Thomson gave only a brief explanation of the symbolism, saying "The pyramid signifies strength and duration" no doubt influenced by the Great Pyramid of Egypt.
Note: The official description of the Great Seal does not specify the number of layers of stone in the pyramid, but it has been traditionally depicted with thirteen.
The Great Seal has a reverse side because when it was adopted in 1782, "pendant seals" were in use, and they had two sides.
"A Pyramid Unfinished"
"The generation which commences a revolution
rarely completes it." Thomas Jefferson
"American history is not something dead and over. It is always alive,
always growing, always unfinished." John F. Kennedy
"The unfinished work of perfecting our union
falls to each of us." Barack Obama
Look on the Bright Side
"America, having duly conceived, bears out of herself offspring of her own to do the workmanship wanted. To freedom, to strength, to poems, to personal greatness, it is never permitted to rest, not a generation or part of a generation. To be ripe beyond further increase is to prepare to die.
"The architects of These States laid their foundations, and passed to further spheres. What they laid is a work done; as much more remains. Now are needed other architects, whose duty is not less difficult, but perhaps more difficult. Each age forever needs architects. America is not finished, perhaps never will be; now America is a divine true sketch."
Walt Whitman, 1856
Letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson
Top illustration: detail of Terry Lamb's realization
of the reverse side of the Great Seal (1975),
commissioned by John D. MacArthur.