A little more than a year ago, I wrote about our national bird, the eagle. The eagle appears on the United States Great Seal and the post briefly discussed the design process for that seal under the Continental Congress. The process spanned over 6 years, involved three separate, specially appointed congressional committees, and an almost bewildering number of proposed designs. On June 20, 1782 the Congress of the Confederation adopted the report of the committee and a cast of the seal was made between June and September 1782. The seal was used by the Congress of the Confederation. After the ratification of the U.S. Constitution the new Congress adopted the seal for their use as well.
The first Congress passed a law for “the safe-keeping of Acts, Records and Seal” of the United States (ch. XIV, 1 Stat. 68) in September 1789. This law gave the Department of State the responsibility for publishing, distributing and authenticating copies of each law passed by Congress. The law went to designate the 1782 seal as the Seal of the United States and to charge the Secretary of State with the responsibility for keeping the seal. This law further directed that the seal was to be affixed
to all civil commissions, to officers of the United States, to be appointed by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, or by the President alone. Provided, That said seal shall not be affixed to any commission before the same shall have been signed by the President of the United States, nor to any other instrument or act, without the special warrant of the President, therefor.
To this day, the Great Seal of the United States is used on a variety of documents which have been signed by the president and countersigned by the Secretary of State. According to the U.S. State Department these documents include treaty ratification and proclamation documents; appointments of cabinet officers and ambassadors; commissions for consular officers; and communications with foreign heads of state.
The 1789 law also allowed the president to use the Great Seal of the United States for official business, but the question often arises about the origins of the separate presidential seal. There is evidence to indicate the president of the Continental Congress may have had and used an official seal for correspondence with the Congress between 1783 to 1789 (see The Eagle and the Shield, p. 562-566). This seal was based on the design for the great seal and consisted of 13 stars for the colonies surrounded by clouds with the motto “E Pluribus Unum” above it. However, there is no firm evidence of this seal being passed on for use to the newly formed government. The Eagle and Shield (pp.409-417) also discusses the “Dorsett Seal,” an incised metal die which was brought to the attention of the Department of State in 1894 by a young man named Palemon Howard Dorsett. Dorsett said the die had been passed down in his family and was said to have come from a nephew of George Washington. Regardless, no document has been found with the impression from this seal on it and its possible use and provenance remain a mystery.
Not until 1850 is there evidence of a design for a presidential seal. In that year, President Fillmore created a design for a seal and sent it to a seal engraver in Maryland, Edward Stabler. However, this information did not come to light until 1885 when a newspaper article in The Daily Graphic published a piece, “The President’s Seals – Past and Present.” According to the article, various seals had been used on the envelopes for correspondence which the president sent to Congress. Unfortunately no impressions of these seals were found since Congress apparently discarded the envelopes. Likewise, the presidency was almost 90 years old before evidence of a presidential coat of arms surfaces. The first instance was in 1877 when President Hayes issued dinner invitations bearing a presidential coat of arms. This coat of arms was influenced by the Great Seal but with significant differences including the eagle in the design turning his head to the left and not the right. There is also evidence of a presidential seal from this time which included the eagle and the legend “The Seal of the President of the United States.”
In 1916 President Wilson oversaw changes to the design of the presidential flag. The revised design which included a spread eagle was based on the presidential seal. The presidential seal continued to feature the eagle with its head turned to the left and a scroll in its beak with “E Pluribus Unum” while the entire device is surrounded by the legend “The Seal of the President of the United States.” This seal and the revised flag and coat of arms were used by the succeeding presidents until 1945.
In the spring of 1945, President Roosevelt raised some questions with regard to the presidential flag which only had four stars on it as opposed to the flags of various five star admirals and generals. This query led to a series of recommendations which were passed to President Truman who subsequently issued an executive order revising both the presidential flag and seal. One of the points that was raised in the review of the flag and seal was the curiosity of the eagle in the seal having his head turned to the left. According to a October 1945 White House press release, heraldic custom dictated that the eagle on a coat of arms should always turn to face its own right side. The final design, as agreed upon by the Truman White House, for the presidential coat of arms, seal and flag can be found in Executive Order 9646:
SHIELD: Paleways of thirteen pieces argent and gules, a chief azure; upon the breast of an American eagle displayed holding in his dexter talon an olive branch and in his sinister a bundle of thirteen arrows all proper, and in his beak a white scroll inscribed “E PLURIBUS UNUM” sable.
CREST: Behind and above the eagle a radiating glory or, on which appears an arc of thirteen cloud puffs proper, and a constellation of thirteen mullets argent.
The whole surrounded by white stars arranged in the form of an annulet with one point of each star outward on the imaginary radiating center lines, the number of stars conforming to the number of stars in the union of the Flag of the United States as established by the act of Congress approved April 4, 1818, 3 Stat. 415.
The Seal of the President of the United States shall consist of the Coat of Arms encircled by the words “Seal of the President of the United States.”
President Eisenhower subsequently issued two executive orders (Executive Orders 10823 and 10860) which revised the presidential coat of arms, seal and flag. These orders added stars for Alaska and Hawaii to the coat of arms, seal and flag but otherwise did not make any changes to the design of these insignia. Presidents Nixon and Ford issued executive orders which limited the use of the presidential and vice-presidential seals and coats of arms while Congress has passed laws penalizing the inappropriate use of the presidential and congressional seals (18 U.S.C. 713). Today, images of the presidential seal appear on White House stationary and invitations while the presidential coat of arms can be seen on Christmas cards, White House china, and various White House furnishings. However, the official seal, impressed in wax, is still used exclusively for correspondence submitted to Congress.