August 21, 2004


The Theology of the United States: An Interpretation of the Great Seal of the United States (Thomas G. West, December 1, 1996, Crisis)

The Great Seal of the United States is the most obvious example of the Founders' conviction that the government should "teach religion." The Seal was adopted in 1782 and reaffirmed by Congress many times afterwards. It is printed today on the dollar bill. The pyramid side of the Seal is a memorable representation of the theology of the Declaration of Independence.

This fact is not widely recognized, in part because practically everyone believes that the pyramid and eye symbols are Masonic in origin. I don't know how many times I have seen this asserted with complete confidence, yet I have been unable to find any substantial basis for it. The definitive history of the Seal (Patterson and Dougall's The Eagle and the Shield, 1976) finds no evidence to support the claim of Masonic inspiration or meaning. None of the Seal's designers were Masons, as far as we know. Founding-era Masons did use the eye to represent God (but not in a triangle). However, Patterson and Dougall report that that symbolism was well established outside of Masonic circles.

The myth of Masonic origins has distracted us from the most obvious and reliable way to understand the Great Seal's meaning: look at it and think about it. Of particular help is the report of the Seal's co-designer, Charles Thomson, which is part of the 1782 law officially approving the Seal.

The reverse side of the Great Seal consists of two parts: a heavenly eye and an earthly pyramid. Each part is labeled with a Latin motto.

In the earthly part, a pyramid rises toward the heaven. Thomson's report explains that "The pyramid signifies strength and duration." On the base of the pyramid is the Roman number MDCCLXXVI (1776), the date, as Thomson remarks, of the Declaration of Independence. The pyramid has thirteen rows of bricks, signifying the thirteen original states. (The number of rows is not specified in the law, but there are thirteen in co-designer William Barton's original drawing, and on the 1778 fifty-dollar bill from which the pyramid idea was originally taken.) The pyramid is the United States, a solid structure of freedom, built on the foundation of the Declaration. It is unfinished because America is a work in progress. More states will be added later.

"In the zenith" above the unfinished pyramid, the 1782 law calls for "an eye in a triangle, surrounded with a glory." This design and placement of God's eye suggests that America is connected to the divine in three ways.

First, the eye keeps watch over America, protecting her from her enemies. Thomson's report explains: "The eye over it and the motto allude to the many signal interventions of providence in favor of the American cause."

The Declaration of Independence had expressed "a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence."

Second, the complete triangle enclosing God's eye is a model for the incomplete or imperfect triangular shape of the pyramid below. The perfect divine shape symbolizes God's perfection, the divine standard for imperfect human beings. God's shape, in turn, guides and governs the construction of the earthly pyramid.

The Declaration says that America, grounded on "the laws of nature and of nature's God," seeks to secure the rights with which the Creator endowed all men. The incomplete triangular pyramid, in contrast to the perfect triangle of God, implies that America is a work in progress in a deeper sense than its number of states. No matter how many rows of bricks (new states) are added to the pyramid, America must always look to the Supreme Being as, and at, her "zenith," to be true to what she is and aspires to be.

In the spirit of this understanding of God, Lincoln said in an 1858 Chicago speech:

It is said in one of the admonitions of the Lord, "As your Father in Heaven is perfect, be ye also perfect." The Savior, I suppose, did not expect that any human creature could be perfect as the Father in Heaven. . . . He set that up as a standard, and he who did most towards reaching that standard, attained the highest degree of moral perfection. So I say that in relation to the principle that all men are created equal, let it be as nearly reached as we can.

Third, the all-seeing eye is not only America's protector and ruling guide. God is also her judge. This theme is not as obvious as the first two, but it is implied by the motto annuit coeptis, "He approves of what has been started." These words imply that God will no longer approve if America strays too far from the right path.

In the Declaration, America "appeal[ed] to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions." Facing the injustice of slavery, Jefferson therefore trembled for his country when he reflected "that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever."

In sum, America is a nation "under God" in three ways. God protects America; God is America's guide and goal; and God judges America.

The Seal has two Latin mottoes, one for the heavenly and one for the earthly part. The mottoes are taken from the great Roman poet Virgil.

The pyramid is labeled novus ordo seclorum, "a new order of the ages." Thomson's report explains, "the words under it signify the beginning of the New American Era, which commences from that date [1776]."

The phrase is a variant of a line in Virgil's fourth Eclogue: "a great order of the ages is born anew". This Eclogue describes the return of the golden age, an age of peace and plenty. The change of words is significant. America is a "new order," not just a "great order." Virgil's golden age has come before and will come again, but nothing like the American founding has ever happened. No nation has ever grounded itself on a universal principle, discovered by reason, affirmed by God, and shared by all human beings everywhere:

that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

"Over the eye," says the 1782 law, appear "these words, annuit coeptis." Literally translated, they mean: "he has nodded [or nods] in assent to the things that have been started" — namely, to the pyramid under construction, the "new order of the ages."

In Virgil's Aeneid, Aeneas leads a remnant of men from conquered Troy over the sea to a land far to the west. After they arrive in Italy, the natives mount a ferocious attack against them. In the midst of the battle, Aeneas's son Ascanius prays to Jupiter to "nod in assent to the daring things that have been started." Jupiter hears the prayer; Ascanius shoots, and his arrow pierces the enemy's head. That victory enables the small band of Trojan warriors to stay in Italy. They will eventually become Rome, the greatest empire in world history.

The two mottoes point to the founding of Rome (the Aeneid) and the golden age (Eclogue 4). Taken together they suggest that America, with divine approval and support, will become a New Rome, combining the glory of the old Rome with the freedom, prosperity, and peace of the golden age.

Meanwhile, the modern Left frets about "under God" in the Pledge?

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 21, 2004 11:09 AM

All these musty old traditions are oppressive and discriminatory, don't you know, and must be modernized A.S.A.P. Except for old traditions in Third World cultures, which must be respected and preserved.

Posted by: PapayaSF at August 21, 2004 1:50 PM

Orrin, don't forget the libertarians. They also fret about "under God" in the Pledge.

Posted by: Vince at August 21, 2004 6:22 PM