Symbols on American money

Our Founding Fathers were deeply aware of the importance of symbols.

In fact, before the adjournment of the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, a committee was appointed to create a seal that would symbolize America’s ideals. The committee included John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin–three of the drafters of the Declaration of Independence.

However, designing the seal was a difficult and controversial undertaking that spanned six years and three committees. The final proposal, as accepted by Congress, was submitted on June 13, 1782, by Charles Thomson, a prominent Philadelphia merchant and secretary of the Continental Congress. He is credited with finalizing the design–unifying the ideas of the three committees, their consultants, and artists.

The result was the Great Seal of the United States, and hidden within it are the messages our Founding Fathers wanted to send to future generations of Americans. Today, the two most prominent features on the back of the $1 note are the pyramid and the eagle, which together constitute the Great Seal of the United States.

To solve the mystery of what these symbols mean, we go directly to the source, Charles Thomson, who presented his written description of the Great Seal to Congress on June 20, 1782.

The most striking feature of the front of the seal is, in Thomson’s words, “an American (Bald) Eagle on the wing and rising.” The eagle flies freely, independent of any support, holding in its left talon 13 arrows, signifying war, and in its right talon an olive branch, signifying peace.

You may think which talon holds the arrows and which holds the olive branch is of little consequence. But, in the language of symbols, it is of great significance. The right side signifies dominance. Therefore, arrows depicted in the eagle’s right talon can be interpreted as a warlike gesture. Failure to adhere to this concept almost got the United States into a war.

From 1801 to 1807, the eagles on the backs of our silver coins were inadvertently shown with the arrows in the right talon instead of the left. Some European journalists and diplomats interpreted this as an expression of American belligerence and tried to use it as grounds for promoting war with the United States.

In response, a new design was created in 1807 for the backs of American silver coins. This time, the olive branch–representing peace–was placed in the dominant right talon, putting an end to the journalistic saber rattling. The eagle holds a banner in its beak with the words E Pluribus Unum, which Thomson translates to mean “Out of many, one”.

Thomson goes on to explain that the shield, or escutcheon, on the eagle’s breast is composed of two major parts: a horizontal blue band, which represents Congress, extending across the top third of the shield supported by 13 red and white vertical stripes, which represent the 13 original colonies.

The 13 stars above the eagle represent a new constellation taking its place in the universe, in the same way that a new nation takes its place among the other sovereign nations.

The colors also have significance. Blue stands for vigilance, perseverance, and justice; red signifies hardiness and valor; and white indicates purity and innocence.

Stephen L. Goldsmith
Symbols on American Money
Published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia

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