Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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The Great Seal of the United States as a civics lesson

This is a newstory that appeared in the Washington Post on August 18. It tells the story, in brief, of some middle grade students (in Ashland, Virginia) who, encouraged by their well intentioned but ignorant teacher, have been lobbying for a few years to change the back of the dollar bill. They want a shortened version of the Constitution to replace what is currently there. The WaPo article says, "You know, in the space now occupied by the eagle and the big green pyramid with the eye over it." And why would this be a good thing? Because it would be a good "civics lesson," and "people living overseas would gain a better understanding of democracy if they were handed a U.S. dollar and could read on it what the United States stands for."

Frankly, this is one of the dumbest things I ever heard of. And it is made especially idiotic coming from a teacher (and supported by a few Senators and Congressmen) who claims to be doing it in the name of teaching civics. Do they have any idea what the "eagle and the big green pyramid" are, and what they stand for? That they seem not to (nor does the writer of the article, apparently) is a massive fact that unfortunately reflects the state of our education in civics. Allow me to explain.

Before the Continental Congress adjurned on July 4, 1776, it passed a resolution asking Ben Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, to draw up a seal for the U.S.A. To shorten a longer story, which you can find here (PDF file, 25 pages), it was not until 1782 when the final Seal of the U.S.A. was approved by Congress. It is this that some folks want to replace with an edited version of the Constitution.

Look at the back of your dollar bill. The better known front of the seal has the bald eagle with spread wings, his talon holding an olive branch and arrows (13 of each), denoting the power of peace and war. The red and white stripes of the shield represent the several states, which support the blue (I know the colors are not on the dollar bill, but you can find them here) which unites the whole and represents the Congress. The whole shield, or escutcheon, is "born on the breats of the American Eagle without any other supporters to denote that the United States of America ought to rely on their own virtue." (in the words of Charles Thomson, the Secretary of Congress, who was tasked in 1782 to finally get it done). E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one) is on the scroll, clenched in the eagle’s beak.

But the reverse side of the Seal (sometimes called the spiritual side) is even more interesting and more to the point.
The pyramid, with 13 steps, has the Roman numerals 1776 as its base. That is what holds up the pyramid. The summit of the pyramid is the Eye of Providence in a triangle surrounded by a Glory (rays of light), and above it appears Annuit Coeptis (He [God] has favored our undertakings). Along the lower circumference of the design appear the words Novus Ordo Seclorum (a new order of the ages). Both terms are taken from the poet Vergil, but never mind that for now.

The meaning of the Great Seal has always been clear to interpreters. The Founders did think they were marking the birthday of a new world, of a new regime, one which would, in great measure, "become the cause of all mankind," as Thomas Paine said. This new order of the ages was the first to recognize the natural rights of all human beings to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, hence to self government based on consent of the governed. This is what Lincoln called "a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all." It is on the declaration that "all men are created equal" that the great fundamental principle upon which our free institutions rest, including the Constitution. It would be a great error indeed in any way to fool around with the Great Seal, or remove it from the dollar bill. The proponents of this bill should uynderstand that, as should the author of the Washington Post article. This is not just a "big green pyramid with an eye over it"! It is the thing for which we stand, and is (again Lincoln) "the electric cord" that "links the hearts of patriotic and libert-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world." How about using the Great Seal of the United States to teach civics, rightly understood?

Discussions - 8 Comments

Thank You. I was never taught those things even in the early 60s.

Thank you as well. I had heard bits and pieces of those meanings, but never had them made so clear and in context. However, I don’t think that putting the constitution is a stupid idea. it is stupid that no one knows the meaning of the seal, and it shouldn’t be necessary to remove it, but the constitution idea does have some merit.


Thanks for the overview and the links. I may just create a lesson plan revolving around the seal. May grab some kids attention.


Let me add to the voices thanking you for this lesson and planning to use it in my government class this year. A dedication to Founding principles and their enduring virtue is what makes the Ashbrook center an incomparable institution.

I would add one further gloss. They pyramid is imcomplete--indicating in part the imperfection or limits of any human enterprise, and also the perpetual efforts required to "form a more perfect union." (This does not mean a "living Constitution." But it does mean that every generation must aspire to the lofty standards set by the Founders.)

The pyramid is completed, at a remove or in the abstract, by God, whose Eye looks down upon it (hence, "annuit coeptis.")

A similar lesson, also little-known, is in the Declaration, where God is mentioned in reference to the legislative, executive, and judicial powers ("laws of Nature and Nature’s God," God as "creator," and as "Supreme Judge of the world.") God, being perfect, has all of these powers. But men, being imperfect, must divide them among the different branches of government.

I thought it had something to do with Freemasonry and it’s strong ties back then.

I recently read "Angels and Demons" by the ridiculously popular thriller author Dan Brown ("The Da Vinci Code" -- couldn’t bring myself to read that tripe, but my unremitting curiosity impelled me to read his prior best-seller), and he has a whole disquisition on the subject of the Great Seal on the dollar bill.

According to Mr. Brown, the design was created by Henry Wallace, Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president, in the early 1940s. Mr. Brown further claims that the symbols were taken from the Illuminati via the Freemasons, and that Wallace and FDR were both members of that latter group. Oh, and he translates the Latin phrase "Novus Ordo Seclorum" as meaning "New Secular Order."

This story didn’t sit well with me, and I did a little Googling to find the truth. I knew that the symbols were from the Great Seal (Mr. Brown doesn’t even mention that, implying that they were created expressly for the dollar bill), and that this seal’s creation surely preceded FDR’s lifetime. My online research confirmed my suspicions, and I read the same facts that you set forth above (the U.S. Mint website is one source.) I also came across Latin scholars who translated the "Novus" phrase as you did, and even explicitly denounced the inacccurate translation which Mr. Brown cites.

Anyway, if I was reluctant to read "The Da Vinci Code" before, now I was totally turned off. As a history buff, there are few things I hate more than a deliberate distortion of historical facts. Brown wasn’t even in the same ballpark; it’s clear that he is purposely misleading his readership in order to bolster his overarching theme, which is anti-religion. And to think that millions read his books and fervently believe every word of them (I know some of these poor misguided souls, unfortunately). Thanks for setting the record straight on the Great Seal, at least.

Thanks, Inkling. Very interesting stuff that I did not know, in part because I never read Brown.

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