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Coat of Arms (U.S.)

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[U.S. Coat of Arms] image by Joe McMillan, 15 February 2000

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Coat of Arms

Immediately after declaring independence on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress constituted a committee consisting of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson to propose a design for a seal for the new United States of America. It was not until June 20, 1782, however, following the fruitless efforts of this and two other committees, that Congress approved a design recommended by its Secretary, Charles Thomson. Following the adoption of the Constitution of 1787, Congress enacted a law confirming this design as the great seal of the United States. The obverse of the seal consists of the coat of arms, which is officially blazoned in the original approving legislation as:

"ARMS. Paleways of thirteen pieces, argent and gules; a chief, azure; the escutcheon on the breast of the American eagle displayed proper, holding in his dexter talon an olive branch, and in his sinister a bundle of thirteen arrows, all proper, and in his beak a scroll, inscribed with this motto, E Pluribus Unum.

For the CREST. Over the head of the eagle, which appears above the escutcheon, a glory, or, breaking through a cloud, proper, and surrounding thirteen stars, forming a constellation argent, on an azure field."
Thomson's explanation of the symbolism was also approved by the Continental Congress:
  • The thirteen alternating pales represents the states,
  • Supporting and united by Congress, represented by the blue chief.
  • The colors signify purity and innocence (white), hardiness and valor (red), and vigilance, perseverance and justice (blue).
  • The olive branch and arrows represent the powers of war and peace.
  • The constellation represents a new state taking its place among other sovereign powers.
  • The eagle as sole supporter signifies that the United States "ought to rely on their own virtue."
The motto is translated, "Out of many, one."

Until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, representations of the arms varied according to the government agency using them and the taste of the artist, particularly in the positioning of the wings, head, and legs of the eagle and the interpretation of the crest. In 1885, the Department of State commissioned Tiffany and Company of New York to design and cut a new die for the great seal, which ultimately resulted in the standardization of the arms as used throughout the U.S. government. The artist responsible for this rendering was Tiffany's chief designer, James Horton Whitehouse.

From the late 18th century until after World War I, the coat of arms was the principal charge on colors and standards of regiments of the U.S. Army, and from 1882 to 1916 on the Presidential flag used by the U.S. Navy. It now appears in its entirety on the flags of senior officials of the Departments of State and of the Army and in the canton of the Coast Guard ensign. The coat of arms on the current Presidential and Vice Presidential flags is a variant, which technically conforms to the wording of the legal description of the national coat of arms, but not to the appearance of the Tiffany design used on the great seal.

Sources. Department of State publication, "The Great Seal of the United States," the official history of the great seal, "The Eagle and the Shield," and Elizabeth W. King, "Seals of Our Nation, States, and Territories," National Geographic (July 1946).

Joe McMillan, 16 February 2000

Date of Adoption

The correct adoption date is 20 June 1782, when Congress adopted the report of the committee that designed the seal (of which the COA constitutes the obverse). The 7 July 1884 date is nothing more than the date of the act by which the Secretary of State was appropriated $1,000 to buy new dies for the seal. Although that purchase led to a new "artistic execution of the arms," to borrow Jan's words, it did not change the legal definition of the design, which is the blazon contained in the report approved on 20 June 1782.

The only substantive legislation on the coat of arms since 1782 was an act of Congress under the current Constitution, passed on 15 September 1789, stating that "the seal heretofore used by the United States in Congress assembled, shall be, and hereby is declared to be, the seal of the United States."

This language has twice been reenacted in slightly condensed form, but only to incorporate it in the collected Revised Statutes in the late 19th century (as RS 1793) and then, on 30 July 1947, into the modern United States Code, as 4 USC 41: "The seal heretofore used by the United States in Congress assembled is declared to be the seal of the United States." Neither reenactment changed the legal description of the coat of arms in the slightest.

If an official source is needed, refer to the Department of State publication, "The Great Seal," a copy of which is on the department's website

Joe McMillan, 20 March 2000

Eye of Providence

The designers of the U.S. Great seal intentionally avoided the use of the word "God" in reference to the seal's reverse. In 1782 they intended the eye to ". allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favor of the American cause."

For more information see "The Eagle and The Shield, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976.

Jim Ferrigan, 27 November 2002


[U.S. Coat of Arms Variation] image by Joe McMillan, 16 February 2000

To illustrate the variation that used to exist in representations of the U.S. coat of arms, here is the coat of arms from the regimental color of the senior infantry regiment of the U.S. Army, the 3rd Infantry (The Old Guard), circa 1863. The color is on display at the Old Guard Museum at Fort Myer, Virginia.
Joe McMillan, 16 February 2000

7 White/6 Red

The designers of the coat of arms consciously used 7 white and 6 red stripes to avoid violating the heraldic rule against placing color on color.

Notes by William Barton, an attorney and student of heraldry who advised Charles Thomson on the design of the coat of arms, and who drafted the official blazon, state that "as the pales or pallets consist of an uneven number, they ought, in strictness, to be blazoned--Argent 6 pallets Gules: but as the 13 pieces allude to the thirteen States, they are blazoned according to the Number of pieces paleways." Thus the azure chief of the arms is on an argent field (color on metal). With seven red and six white stripes, it would be on a gules field (color on color).

Source: Richard S. Patterson and Richardson Dougall, The Eagle and the Shield: A History of the Great Seal of the United States (Washington: Department of State/GPO, 1978), p. 81.

Joe McMillan, 17 February 2000