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The Great Seal of the United States

Featured Content June 19, 2020 – Officially adopted by Congress on June 20, 1782

The Great Seal symbolizes independence and self-government and appears on official documents such as proclamations, treaties and communications from the President to heads of foreign governments. You will also find it on U.S. passports and the U.S. one dollar bill. Through an Act of Congress on September 15, 1789, entitled The Records Act or “An Act to provide for the safe keeping of the Acts, Records, and Seal of the United States, and for other purposes,” the Department of State acquired possession of the Great Seal, and use of the Great Seal is governed by 18 U.S.C. 713. Although the Department of State is the custodian of the Great Seal, it is the Department of Justice that determines whether any particular use violates the Statute.

Brief History

As soon as the Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1776, the Continental Congress created a committee comprised on some of the nation’s visionary Founders to design of a seal for the United States. Over the next six years, three different committees submitted ideas but none were accepted until Congress tasked their Secretary Charles Thomson to come up with a design on June 13, 1782. Thomson created a design, and a week later on June 20th presented it to Congress and it was approved that same day.

The original form of the Great Seal adopted in 1782 was a written description of the two-sided design using technical language to describe the imagery. No artwork was submitted to nor adopted by Congress. This description called a “blazon” was the starting point for creating a die or illustration. Reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States; S. Doc. 109-18 - OUR FLAGCombining elements from previous designs, Thomson along with William Barton an expert heraldist, were primarily responsible for creating the design of the Great Seal, Barton for creating the face and Thomson the reverse side. Read more about the symbolism of the Great Seal on the National Archive's website.

The first die was cut from brass in 1782 and there have been several presses used from 1782 to 1904. The press used today was made in 1903 and the die in 1904. First die of the Great Seal of the United States, 1782; Source: National ArchivesThe Great Seal which has had many homes, was placed in its permanent residence in March of 1961 in the Exhibit Hall of the Department of State. Read a more detailed history of the Great Seal and its journey on the Department of State's website and download the document “The Great Seal of the United States.”

Sources for this article except where otherwise noted are National Archives,
Department of State, and Department of Defense


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