The Symbolism of the Early Republic

The Great Seal of the United States, as depicted on the one-dollar note.

In the earliest years of the Republic, the Founding Fathers sought to design the symbols and designs that would characterize the United States. One of the most prominent symbols of the early Republic is the Great Seal of the United States. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams all tried to design the Great Seal. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 554.

Benjamin Franklin proposed “a biblical scene, that of Moses” dividing the Red Sea. Id. Jefferson also wanted a depiction of a biblical scene, “the Children of Israel in the Wilderness.” Id. Adams, however, “proposed Hercules surveying the choice between Virtue and Sloth, the most popular of emblems in the eighteen century.” Id. 

Ultimately, Congress gave the job of designing the Great Seal to Charles Thomson, who designed the Great Seal familiar to all Americans. The eagle “on one side was a symbol of empire.” Id. The pyramid “represented the strength of the new nation,” and the “all-seeing eye on the reverse stood for providence.” Id.

The Latin mottoes also brought meaning to the new Republic. Novus Ordo Seclorum means “a new order of the ages,” and Annuit Coeptis means “He has looked after us.” These mottoes were taken from Virgil, the ancient Roman poet. Id. citing Frank H. Sommer, “Emblem and Device: The Origin of the Great Seal of the United States,” Art Quarterly, 24 (1961), 57-77; Steven C. Bullock, “‘Sensible Signs’: The Emblematic Education of Post-Revolutionary Freemasonry,” in Donald R. Kennon, ed., A Republic for the Ages: The United States Capitol and the Political Culture of the Early Republic (Charlottesville, 1999), 203, 210.

Meanwhile, others, like Jefferson, oversaw completion of buildings reminiscent of the ancient Roman buildings of many centuries ago. He sought to make the Virginia capitol building to be a copy of the Maison Carrée, an ancient Roman temple from the first century. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 558. Jefferson believed that buildings modeled after ancient Rome would “improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, and to reconcile to them the respect of the world, and procure them its praise.” Thomas Jefferson to William Buchanan and James Hay, 26 Jan. 1786, to James Madison, 20 Sept. 1785, Papers of Jefferson, 9: 220-22, 8: 534-35.

These early actions by the Founding Fathers inform modern students of history, and modern Americans generally, of the grandeur and splendor that the Founding Fathers hoped America would enjoy. The Founding Fathers understood that the creation of the Republic provided the greatest hope for the country, and perhaps the world, to be the most well-functioning, egalitarian society since ancient Rome.

The aspirations of the Founding Fathers for America must have helped Americans to propel the country ahead of others and to maintain its stature. The Founding Fathers began the narrative that America was destined for greatness. While those beginnings were modest, and much turmoil was to unfold over the course of the young country’s history, Americans will recognize that those symbols of centuries ago and the accompanying mottoes are not just meaningless symbols. They are symbols that remind all Americans of the humble, hopeful beginning of the United States.

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