|Thomson's design of the Great Seal of the USA, 1782.|
In the canton of the flag that had previously been used to represent the new nation, the Union Jack was replaced by a solid dark blue background or field, with 13 white stars on it, representing the 13 states.
Congress voted to accept the new design of the flag on June 14, 1777, and June 14 is now designated Flag Day.
Five years later, Congress asked 53-year-old Charles Thomson to design America’s Great Seal based on reports and drawings of the three committees that had looked into it.
Thomson had served the previous eight years as Secretary of the Continental Congress. He had previously been a Latin master at an academy in Philadelphia.
His sketch of a design is shown above. His description of it shows he has in mind the 13 original colonies leaning into one another to make the red-and-white chevron or upside-down V. This substitutes for the stripes on the flag, or the bars on the Washington shield.
The Great Seal looks a lot like the one the White House uses today. The bird, stars and stripes on the seal includes the major elements of the Washington coat of arms. The bird on the seal has morphed into the American bald eagle and two main additions have been made:
- In the eagle’s beak, Thomson placed a scroll with the first committee’s motto: E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One).
- The eagle is now facing the olive branch in one talon instead of the bundle of arrows in the other. In the sketch, Thomson has the eagle's head looking in the direction of peace. This was reversed in the final version, perhaps to make the eagle look more threatening to a possible invader. Britain did try to retake their colonies in 1812 and were fighting again here until January 1815, although a peace treaty was signed in Ghent a month before. The direction that the eagle faces was reversed again after World War II.
- Truman's interest in peace. According to a guide at the Little White House in Key West, which Alice and I visited in 2011, President Truman decided that the United States should show itself intent on peace, not war.
- Compliance with heraldic convention. The New York Times last week, in an obituary of George M. Elsey, says that Elsey began the change in direction of the eagle's face under FDR. Heraldic experts explained to him, he told NPR in 2005, that the eagle's looking to its left was "sinister". Lions etc. properly face their right (i.e., dexter or the left from the viewer's perspective). Thomson did it properly in his first sketch.
- The change in the name of the War Department. After World War II, in 1947, the Department of War was renamed the Department of Defense.