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The Great Seal

Created by:
Michelle McDonald
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

TAH Teachers
Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District

Constitutional Conversations

Grade Level:
6 to 8


The Great Seal of the United States is the symbol of our sovereignty as a nation. It appears on official documents to authenticate the signature of the President as well as on proclamations, warrants, treaties, and commissions of high government officials. The Great Seal's design, used as our national coat of arms, is incorporated in military uniform buttons, and on plaques above the entrances to U.S. embassies and consulates. Both the front and the less familiar reverse, which is never used as a seal, are imprinted on the one-dollar bill.

Historical Context

The Continental Congress appointed a committee to design a seal for the United States on July 4, 1776, just a few hours after they adopted the Declaration of Independence. The committee members--Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams--prepared a very complicated design that Congress promptly tabled. However, one prominent feature of their original design appeared in the final seal--the motto E Pluribus Unum, which means Out of Many, One.

In 1780, a second committee--James Lovell of Massachusetts and John Morin Scott and William Churchill Houston of Virginia--developed a different design, but Congress also tabled it. Like the first design, the second had elements that were later incorporated into the final seal, including an olive branch, a constellation of 13 stars, and a shield with red and white stripes on a blue field.

A third committee was appointed in May of 1782. This committee's design used an eagle for the first time in the crest.

Early in 1782, Congress referred the three designs to Secretary of the Continental Congress Charles Thompson. Thompson made a fourth design that was revised by William Barton, a Philadelphia student of heraldry, the practice of the practice of designing, displaying, describing, and recording coats of arms and badges. Thompson submitted a written description of his final version to the Continental Congress that described the design and explained its symbolism. The Continental Congress approved this design on June 20, 1782.

This activity asks students to compare designs suggested by the three committees and think about what ideas and images America's founders thought were essential to the nation's struggle for independence.


symbolism, patriotism, diversity, democracy, emblems, design, compromise

Goals and Objectives:

After completing this activity, students will be able to:

1) Compare and contrast different political symbols.2) Interpret these symbols to explore the political and social ideas they represent.

3) Draft symbols of their own to articulate their ideas about Out of Many, One."


Equipment, materials and other technology needed:

First Committee's Great Seal Design (July 1776)

Second Committee's Great Seal Design (March 1780)

Third Committee's Great Seal Design (May 1782)

Final Design adopted by Congress (June 1782)

Contemporary image of the Great Seal of the United States (2008)

Details of Activity

Part I: Working in Groups (15-20 min.)

Split the class into small groups and assign each of them a version of the Great Seal (depending on how many groups you have, you may decide to have two groups work on each image). Each group should analyze their given image. Encourage them to look up any words they don't know in the dictionary, explaining that both Old English and Latin words appear in different versions of the images they are considering. In their analysis, groups should answer the following questions:

1. What is the strongest symbol in the image?

2. What other symbols are in the image?

3. What does the group think these symbols are intended to represent? What do they mean?

4. What elements of each image are most expected? Which are surprising and why?

5. How do the elements of the image reflect ideas that were significant to the American Revolution?

Part 2: Compare and Contrast (15 min.)

Ask each group to provide a list of the symbols they found in their drawings. Write each list on the board in a separate column.

When all lists have been compiled from the class, ask them to consider which symbols were most popular. Which symbols remained constant across the different designs and which changed? Why would these changes (or lack of changes) have taken place? What made some images more popular than others?

Part 3: Out of Many, One (20-30 min. depending on number of groups)

Give each group 15-20 minutes to discuss how they might create a Great Seal today. If the Continental Congress were to convene in 2008, what images and ideas could they use to represent the ideal of Out of Many, One?

Practice and Reinforcement

If there is time, ask groups to draw a rough sketch of their Great Seal, then compare these images as a class. You can ask the same questions about the commonalities and differences between the drawings, as well as consider how the same idea (for example, people from different countries) may have appeared differently in different groups' Great Seal sketches.


Supplementary Materials

For more information about the Teaching American History Program click here