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The Great Seal: Celebrating 233 Years of a National Emblem

Today’s post comes from Meagan T. Frenzer, graduate research intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC.

On June 20, 1782, the Confederation Congress approved and finalized the first Great Seal of the United States.

The First Continental Congress in 1776 originally commissioned Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams to create a national seal. As members of the First Great Seal Committee, these Founding Fathers intended to design a national emblem that reflected the independence and aspirations of the new nation.

This was no easy task. It took more than three committees and six years of congressional debate to complete the Great Seal.

It was Secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thomson, who submitted the final design for the Great Seal 233 years ago. Thomson’s design combined elements of submissions presented to the prior committees. His uncluttered, symbolic design fulfilled Congress’s expectations.

The face side of Thomson’s seal, also known as the “observe” side, displays a bald eagle with wings spread. The eagle clutches a bundle of 13 arrows (representing the 13 colonies) in its left talon and an olive branch in its right talon. Together, the items in the eagle’s talons stand for war and peace.

Charles Thompson's First Design, 1782. (National Archives Identifier 595257)

Charles Thompson’s first design for the Great Seal (obverse side), 1782. (National Archives Identifier 595257)

The eagle’s beak holds a banner that reads E pluribus unum. The Latin phrase roughly translates as “Out of many, one,” describing the formation of a single nation from 13 colonies.

On the eagle’s breast is a shield with 13 red and white stripes below a blue chief, or the upper region of the shield. The red and white chevrons stand for valor and purity, while the blue represents vigilance, perseverance, and justice.

A cloud floats above the eagle’s head and surrounds 13 stars forming a constellation. The formation of this constellation alludes again to the formation of the new nation.

The “reserve,” or back side, of the Great Seal contains a 13-step pyramid representing strength, while the Eye of Providence sits above the pyramid within a triangle. The year 1776 in Roman numerals rests at the base of the pyramid.

Inscribed above the Eye is the Latin motto, Annuit Coeptis, meaning “He [God] has favored our undertakings.” The inscription characterizes the favorable circumstances that bolstered the American cause for independence.

The scroll below the pyramid reads, Novus Ordo Seclorum, which is Latin for “A New Order of the Ages.” This phrase represents the beginnings of a new era for the United States.

The National Archives holds the first design of Thomson’s “observe” side, which features red and white chevrons as opposed to the vertical stripes used in the final design.

Additionally, the National Archives holds seal designs by Francis Hopkinson, signer of the Declaration of Independence and designer of the American flag.

Francis Hopkinson’s First Observe Design, 1780. (National Archives Identifier 595254)

Francis Hopkinson’s first obverse design for the Great Seal, 1780. (National Archives Identifier 595254)

As a participant of the Second Great Seal Committee, Hopkinson’s work inspired the addition of the 13 stripes on the shield, 13 stars, and an olive branch in Thomson’s final designs.

The first engraved metal die of the Great Seal, based on Thomson’s design, was used from September 1782 to 1841. The National Archives holds the first die, along with other seal dies used from 1841 to 1909. Thomson had designed the reverse in case Congress wanted to impress the back surfaces of wax pendant seals but a die for the reserve was never cut.

Two hundred and thirty-three years later, the Great Seal of the United States still reflects the traits and principles that the government aims to uphold.

First Die of the Great Seal of the United States, 1782. (National Archives Identifier 596742)

First die of the Great Seal of the United States, 1782. (National Archives Identifier 596742)


The American Flag

Today’s post, in honor of Flag Day, comes from Alex Nieuwsma, an intern in the National Archives History Office.

Cartoonist Clifford Berryman highlights the annual Flag Day with an American flag waving among the light and dark clouds caused by the gunfire of battles. (National Archives Identifier 6011429)

Cartoonist Clifford Berryman highlighted the annual Flag Day with an American flag waving among the light and dark clouds caused by the gunfire of battles, June 14, 1918. (National Archives Identifier 6011429)

On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress officially adopted the Stars and Stripes as the National Flag of the United States of America. Through its many changes and iterations, the American flag has come to represent the physical geography of the nation by including as many stars as states, as well as a remembrance of the nation’s origins as seen in the 13 red and white stripes.

The American flag also serves as a reminder of what America and her citizens represent: liberty, equality, and justice.

Designed by Francis Hopkinson, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the flag was originally intended to be used as a naval sign. However, growing nationalism around the world during the 18th century led many countries to establish a national flag, the United States included. It is unclear how or why Congress selected Hopkinson’s design for this honor.

The involvement of Betsy Ross in the design and creation of the first American flag is largely fictitious. It is likely that her grandson, William J. Canby, developed the story in the 1870s and that her only connection to the American flag was as a Philadelphia flag maker who sewed flags and banners for the United States military.

President Woodrow Wilson officially established June 14 as Flag Day in 1916. He issued a proclamation encouraging all Americans to “rededicate ourselves to the nation, ‘one and inseparable’ . . .  and in which we shall stand with united hearts.”

Following 1916, Flag Day was unofficially observed every year. It wasn’t until 1949 that Congress passed a law requiring the President to give an annual Flag Day Proclamation, encouraging Americans to honor the American flag during the week of June 14 by displaying it publicly.

Despite a requirement that all Federal Government buildings display the American flag on Flag Day, it is not an official Federal holiday. Several states have declared June 14 to be a state holiday, however, prompting communities across the nation to celebrate with parades and other events that commemorate the flag and what it stands for.

This year’s Flag Day Proclamation will designate June 14, 2015, to be Flag Day and National Flag Week to be June 14 until June 20, 2015.


Strategically Important: West Point

Today’s post comes from Adam Berenbak, archivist in the Center for Legislative Archives in Washington, DC.

The Continental Army and Gen. Samuel Parsons first occupied the land at West Point, New York, owned by Steven Moore, in the winter of 1778. The fort was crucial in defending New York, the Hudson River, and the lines of communication to the northeastern states. The new American government continued to lease the property from Moore after the Revolutionary War.

During the First Congress, the House of Representatives received a petition, the fourth sent by Moore, to receive compensation for damages to his property. The House forwarded the claim to the Treasury Department. On June 10, 1790, the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, reported back to the House that a permanent military post should be established at West Point. Hamilton believed this purchase was “expedient and necessary,” as guarding the Hudson River was essential to the “public safety.” On June 15, a committee appointed to look into the matter reported out HR 76, which authorized the purchase of the land from Moore.

Page one of the Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the petition of Stephen Moore advocating the retention by the U.S. of West Point as a military post, June 10, 1790; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Page one of the Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the petition of Stephen Moore advocating the retention by the U.S. of West Point as a military post, June 10, 1790; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Page two of the Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the petition of Stephen Moore advocating the retention by the U.S. of West Point as a military post, June 10, 1790; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Page two of the Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the petition of Stephen Moore advocating the retention by the U.S. of West Point as a military post, June 10, 1790; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Page three of the Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the petition of Stephen Moore advocating the retention by the U.S. of West Point as a military post, June 10, 1790; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Page three of the Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the petition of Stephen Moore advocating the retention by the U.S. of West Point as a military post, June 10, 1790; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Hamilton, as well as Secretary of War Henry Knox, emphasized West Point’s strategic importance, while others in Congress argued that passing HR 76 was important in order to rightfully compensate Moore. The bill passed, the land was appraised by a commission, and on November 22, 1790, the government paid Moore $6,576 for the property.

The idea for a national military school had been discussed at various times since the Revolutionary War, and the establishment of West Point as a military academy in 1802 came only after many years of debate. Thomas Jefferson, who eventually signed the legislation to create the school, argued that a military academy could not be established because there was no provision for it in the Constitution. Many members of Congress were worried about the aristocratic overtones of such a school and the implications of a “professional military.” The War of 1812 brought attention to the importance of funding and organizing the United States Military Academy, but graduation numbers were low. By 1830, the House was listening to arguments for its termination.

On January 21, 1830, a resolution was introduced in the House that would require the Military Academy to report to Congress detailed information about the Academy, including the names of all applicants and graduates, and if their fathers or guardians were part of the federal or state governments. The following day, Representative Davy Crockett of Tennessee argued against an amendment that was introduced to strike out the familial information requirement, and in doing so expressed both his and his state’s objection to the institution.

In fact, on February 25, 1830 Crockett submitted a bill calling for the abolition of West Point on the grounds that it was only a school for the “sons of the noble and wealthy,” complicating a larger problem that “no man could get a commission in the Army unless he had been educated at West Point.”

Page one of Congressman Davy Crockett’s resolution to abolish the military academy at West Point, February 25, 1830; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives. National Archives Identifier 2173241

Page one of Congressman Davy Crockett’s resolution to abolish the military academy at West Point, February 25, 1830; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives. National Archives Identifier 2173241

The resolution said:

Resolved further that the military academy at West Point is subject to the foregoing objections—in as much as those who are educated there, receive their instruction at the public expense and are generally the sons of the rich and influential who are able to educate their own children while the sons of the poor for want of active friends are often neglected…

Crockett’s resolution was ultimately tabled.

West Point’s fame came from the success of its graduates in the Mexican-American War and the Civil War. It was accredited by the Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools in 1928. Moore’s 1,617-acre tract at West Point is now the oldest continually occupied American military post.

The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225th anniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents on Tumblr and Twitter; use #Congress225 to see all the postings.


The Coca-Cola Bottle: Celebrating 100 Years of an American Icon

Original Coke Bottle Patent,  November 16, 1915. (Records of the Patent and Trademark Office, National Archives)

Original Coke Bottle Patent, November 16, 1915. (Records of the Patent and Trademark Office, National Archives)

Today the Coca-Cola bottle is one of the most recognizable containers in the world, but a century ago nearly all soda bottles looked the same.

To distinguish its product from competitors, in 1915 the Coca-Cola Company launched a competition among glassmakers to design a new bottle that was distinctive in both look and feel.

The winning design, patented by the Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Indiana, sought inspiration from Coca-Cola’s ingredients. However, the bottle’s fluted contour shape was instead modeled after the cacao pod, the main ingredient in chocolate.

The Coca-Cola Company adopted the Root Glass Company’s bottle design in 1916, but the original prototype was never manufactured because it was top-heavy and unstable.

The first commercial “Coke” bottles debuted with a wider base and slimmed-down, contoured shape. This silhouette became so unmistakable that in 1961 the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office gave it trademark status.

See the original patent in person at the National Archives in Washington, DC, from June 4 through July 29, 2015, in the West Rotunda Gallery and from October 29 through December 2, 2015, in the East Rotunda Gallery.

And check out the post, “Inventing in Congress: Patent Law since 1790” to learn more about the history of patent law in the United States.

Men of the 133rd Field Artillery Battalion enjoy Cokes on the front, March 17, 1944. (Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives)

Men of the 133rd Field Artillery Battalion enjoy Cokes on the front, March 17, 1944. (Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives)

Military Police officers toast with their Coca-Colas at a “Retreat Club,” July 21, 1945. (Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives)

Military Police officers toast with their Coca-Colas at a “Retreat Club,” July 21, 1945. (Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives)


The Articles of Association: Liberty through Economic Independence

Today’s post comes from Alley Marie Jordan, graduate research intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, D.C.

In celebration of the Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary this year, the National Archives is exhibiting a seminal document on American political and economic liberties: the 1774 Articles of Association.

The Articles of Association, written by the First Continental Congress, addressed economic grievances imposed on the colonies. They asserted non-importation and non-exportation sanctions on Great Britain, Ireland, and the East Indies in reaction to the British Crown’s infamous 1774 Intolerable Acts.

The able Doctor, or America Swallowing the Bitter Draught. Illustrates the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party-—the Boston Port Bill and the closing of the port. Copy of engraving by Paul Revere, June 1774. (National Archives Identifier 535722)

“The able Doctor, or America Swallowing the Bitter Draught” illustrates the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party—the Boston Port Act and the closing of the port. Copy of engraving by Paul Revere, June 1774. (National Archives Identifier 535722)

In 1773, the Sons of Liberty, a secret society of American rebels, dumped a shipload of tea into the Boston Harbor, protesting “taxation without representation.”

The following year, two years before the start of the American Revolution, the British Crown responded to the Boston Tea Party by passing what the American Patriots called the Intolerable Acts.

The Intolerable Acts were a series of four legislative acts imposed by Great Britain on the colonies in order to punish them and to quell the rising rebellion.

The acts were composed of

  • The Boston Port Act, which closed the port of Boston
  • The Massachusetts Government Act, which required that all Massachusetts government positions be appointed by either the Crown itself, the Governor, or Parliament
  • The Administration of Justice Act, which asserted that trials against officials of the Crown were to take place in Great Britain and not in Massachusetts if the Crown believed Massachusetts incapable of executing a fair trial
  • The Quartering Act, which allowed Royal soldiers to be housed in unoccupied buildings

 

Articles of Association,  page 1, 10/20/1774.  National Archives Identifier 6277397)

Articles of Association, page 1, 10/20/1774. National Archives Identifier 6277397)

The Articles of Association asserted that, in order to free themselves economically from Great Britain, the colonies will “encourage frugality, economy, and industry, and promote agriculture, arts and the manufactures of this country.”

The writers of the Articles of Association viewed Great Britain’s authority as tyrannical and understood that they needed to control and use their own resources to survive without Great Britain.

Furthermore, America’s economic independence would then lead to its political independence.

The Articles of Association, which later inspired the 1776 Declaration of Independence, is a significant document because it established the colonies’ recognition of their own economic disenfranchisement under the authority of England.

Moreover, the Articles established the colonists’ want and need for economic independence. Even before the Declaration of Independence, the Americans were preparing themselves for a break with Great Britain.

Articles of Association, signature page, 10/20/1774. National Archives Identifier 6277397)

 

The 11th Article asserted that “all such foes to the rights of British-America may be publicly known, and universally condemned as the enemies of American liberty; and thenceforth we respectively will break off all dealings with him or her.”

The early Americans’ sense of liberty and loyalty to economic freedom became manifest in this document.

For early Americans, as for contemporary ones, economic freedom and personal liberty were one in the same. The freedom to own one’s property and to use it in the best way one sees fit was an essential tenet of the Founders’ philosophy. For the Founders, the inability to control one’s economy and economic status led to the inability to control one’s political life.

The rarely viewed Articles of Association will be on display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, from June 4 through July 29, 2015.