GreatSeal.com logo

Main Pages

Front Page
Overview
Seal FAQs

Design Process
 1st Committee
 2nd Committee
 3rd Committee
 Final Design
 Description
 Explanation

Latin Mottoes
 E Pluribus Unum
 Annuit Coeptis
 Novus Ordo Seclorum

Symbols (front)
 Bald Eagle
 Shield
 Olive Branch
 Arrows
 Stars
 Rays of Light
 Cloud

Symbols (back)
 Pyramid
 Eye
 MDCCLXXVI

Great Seals
 Official Dies
 First Engravings
 First Painting
 1792 Medal
 Indian Medals
 1882 Medal
 One-Dollar Bill

Myths
 Eagle Side
 Pyramid Side

Themes
 Unity
 Peace
 Liberty
 Thirteen

Related
 Wild Turkey
 President's Seal
 Sightings
 Resources

Symbolism of the Shield on the Great Seal

Shield Shield Shield Shield
Sketches of all four preliminary designs

The first committee's shield designed by Pierre Du Simitière is bordered with the initials for "each of the thirteen independent States of America." Inside are symbols of the six "Countries from which these States have been peopled:" the rose for England, thistle for Scotland, harp for Ireland, fleur-de-lis for France, lion for Holland, imperial eagle (two-headed) for Germany.

The first striped shield (red and white diagonal) was suggested by the second committee – the idea of Francis Hopkinson, who had designed the American flag in 1777.

The consultant on the third committee, William Barton, wanted a shield of 13 horizontal stripes with a pillar in the center. That bird at the top is a "phoenix in flames"!

Great Seal shield When Charles Thomson came up with the final design of the Great Seal, he first suggested a shield with 13 chevrons (top right), introducing the theme of mutual support that led William Barton to suggest the 13 vertical stripes (states) supporting a chief (federal government) we see today. The shape of the shield is not specified.

As stated in the official description the shield has
"thirteen pieces Argent and Gules: A Chief Azure."

Description of shield

This means the shield has seven white (argent) stripes, six red (gules) stripes, and a blue (azure) top section (Chief). Note: the American flag has seven red and six white stripes.

In heraldry, the shield and motto complement each other. Charles Thomson thought the first committee's motto "E pluribus unum" (Out of many, one) best captured the shield's symbolism, so he put it on the scroll held in the Eagle's beak.

Symbolism of the Shield (paraphrase of official explanation)
The shield is composed of the blue Chief (top horizontal bar) and the red and white Pales (thirteen vertical stripes) which represent the several states all joined in one solid compact entire, supporting a Chief which unites the whole and represents Congress. The motto alludes to this union.

The stripes are kept closely united by the Chief, and the Chief depends upon the union and the strength resulting from it for its support to denote the Confederacy of the United States of America and the preservation of their union through Congress.

The Human U.S. Shield, Mole & Thomas, 1918
"The Human U.S. Shield:
30,000 Officers and Men" ©1918 Mole & Thomas

Shields are At the Heart of Heraldry

The shield is a warrior's primary piece of defensive equipment. They were first made of leather skins. Later, of tough wood covered with leather or metal, or entirely of metal – even including gold and silver.

Shield were decorated by staining the leather or beating the metal into shapes. They were also inlaid, and studded with nails or precious metal. The insignia of a warrior or knight was painted on his shield, making him easier to identify in a battle or contest.

By the thirteenth century, in England the various decorative "devices" on shields – and on the other aspects of a knight's armament – became systematized into the rules of heraldry that formalize the appearance of a coat of arms or seal.

New York State Seal Supporters of the Shield
In heraldry, shields traditionally are held by two figures, one on either side. Called "supporters," they originated from the custom at medieval tournaments, when knights' shields were carried by attendants costumed as lions, bears, griffins, or other animals.

Supporters on Preliminary Designs:

    First Committee (1776):
    Goddess of Liberty and Goddess of Justice
      (Same duo are on New York's state seal shown here.)

    Second Committee (1780):
    A Warrior and a Figure representing Peace

    Third Committee (May 1782):
    The Genius of America (represented by a Maiden) and an American Warrior

What's unique about the Great Seal of the United States is the absence of two figures supporting the shield. Thomson explained: The Escutcheon (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.

Explanation of the Shield

Thomson's sketch
Thomson's preliminary sketch



Historical content is based on the official history of the Great Seal.
GreatSeal.com is not affiliated with the U.S. Government.
Copyright ©2013 by John D. MacArthur.