Fact and Fiction about the Great Seal of the United States

Several articles have been published recently about the Great Seal of the United States. In commemoration of the Seal, there was a traveling interactive exhibit. Like so many stories about our nation’s past, there has been a lot of fiction written about the meaning of the several designs on the Great Seal. The explanation of the Latin phrase Annuit Coeptis caught my attention. Charles Thomson, one of the original designers along with William Barton, describes this portion of the motto in The Journals of the Continental Congress (June 1782): “The Eye over [the pyramid] and the motto Annuit Coeptis allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favor of the American cause” (see here).

The key word here is “providence.” The Associated Press story on the Great Seal states that “providence” refers “to unexpected interventions of fate that assisted the colonists in creating a new country.” “Fate” and “providence” are not the same thing. The opening paragraph of the first proclamation for a National Day of Thanksgiving (1777) reads:

FORASMUCH as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for benefits received, and to implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of; And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence, but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defence and Establishment of our unalienable Rights and Liberties; particularly in that he hath been pleased in so great a Measure to prosper the Means used for the Support of our Troops and to crown our Arms with most signal success (see here).

 As you can see, “Providence” is the jurisdiction of “Almighty God,” not the mythological fates. At the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin did not speak of “fate” but of Providence, the Providence of God:

In the beginning of the contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the Divine Protection. — Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance. I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that “except the Lord build they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel.

The Latin phrase Annuit Coeptis was chosen because it had 13 letters and thus would match the other symbols of 13 in the Seal. Annuit Coeptis is translated by the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Mint, and the U.S. Treasury as “He [God] has favored our undertakings.” (brackets in original):

In his design of the seal’s reverse, Thomson retained the pyramid with the Eye of Providence in a triangle at the zenith and, as products of his Latin scholarship, introduced the mottos Annuit Coeptis (He [God] has favored our undertakings) over the eye and Novus Ordo Seclorum (A new order of the ages) beneath the pyramid. He gave his rough sketches and reports to Barton, depending on him to polish the designs (see here).

So then, the Great Seal is not about fate; it’s about the Providence of God.

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