Thursday, July 4, 2024

We Declared Our Independence! Now What? I Know, a Coat of Arms

Late on the afternoon of July 4, 1776, the same day as the official date of the Declaration of Independence which had been adopted two days before, the Continental Congress of the newly-declared United States of America appointed three members of the committee of five which had drafted the Declaration (Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson), as follows:

"Resolved, That Dr. Franklin, Mr. J. Adams and Mr. Jefferson, be a committee, to prepare a device for a Seal for the United States of America."

Over the course of the next month, these three gentlemen considered several possible designs, and on August 20, 1776, presented to Congress their final design, to wit:

“The great seal should on one side have the arms of the United States of America, which arms should be as follows:

“The shield has six quarters, parti one, coupé two. The 1st Or, a Rose enameled gules and argent for England; the 2nd Argent, a Thistle proper for Scotland; the 3d Vert a Harp Or for Ireland; the 4th Azure a Flower de luce Or for France; the 5th Or the Imperial Eagle Sable for Germany; and the 6th Or the Belgic Lion Gules for Holland, pointing out the countries from which these States have been peopled. The Shield within a border Gules entwined of thirteen Scutcheons Argent linked together by a chain or, each charged with the initial letters Sable, as follows: 1st M.B., 2nd N.H., 3d R.I., 4th C., 5th N.Y., 6th N.J., 7th P., 8th D.C., 9th M., 10th V., 11th N.C., 12th S.C., 13th G., for each of the thirteen independent States of America.”

The initials stood for: Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware Chesapeake, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. With supporters (Liberty and Justice), a crest of the Eye of Providence in a radiant triangle, and the motto, E Pluribus Unum, “Out of many, one.”

Congress’ action on this proposal? The Journal of Congress entry dated August 27th, 1776, notes: “the committee appointed to prepare a device for the Great Seal of the United States, brought in the same with the explanation thereof. Ordered to lie on the table.”

Apparently, rather like us, Congress was not impressed by the submitted design.

Two more committees and nearly six years later, the arms of the United States were approved on June 20, 1782. Here is how they appear on the reverse of the $1 bill today:

The arms on the breast of the eagle are blazoned Paly of thirteen* argent and gules a chief azure.

* Some heraldry enthusiasts get all "up in arms" (pardon the pun) about that blazon, which has come under criticism nearly since its original publication until today.

Much of that criticism is based on English blazon practice, as summarized in James Parker’s A Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry:

Paly: when the field is divided by perpendicular lines into an even number of equal parts, the first of which is generally a metal, and that last of a colour. An uneven number … would be blazoned as of so many pales.

A difficulty with blazoning the arms of the United States in this manner is that the emblazon might not be reproduced accurately from the blazon. For example, many depictions of Argent six pallets Gules a chief Azure have the red stripes (the charges) significantly narrower than the white ones (the field), but such depictions lose the symbolism of having thirteen equally wide stripes, representing the thirteen original states of the union.

Then, too, as early as September 1786, in the Columbian Magazine, in “Remarks and Explanation” believed to be by William Barton, we find: “It is not consistent with the dignity of an imperial state, that its armorial insignia must necessarily be blazoned according to the general rules of blazonry prescribed by heralds.” Or in other words, “It’s ours, and we can blazon it however we like. So there.” Not the most convincing argument, I believe, but there it is nonetheless.

And finally, as John Gibbon stated in 1682, a full century earlier, in his Introductio ad Latinam Blasoniam:

Foreigners make no matter, neither in Paly, Barry, nor Bendy, whether the pieces be even or odd, provided they be of an equal latitude.

So, naysayers of the Eighteenth – or the Twenty-First – Centuries to the contrary notwithstanding, it seems, to me at least, that Paly of thirteen Argent and Gules a chief Azure is an accurate and acceptable blazon for the arms of the United States, one which will permit a faithful reproduction of the emblazon by any heraldic artist who follows it.

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