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The Great Seal of the United States of America

by Wor. H. Meij, PM Sinim Lodge

Purpose of this paper

The purpose of this paper is not to prove or disprove anything. It is intended to shed a different light on a particular subject, so that the reader can take it and interpret the views expressed here in his/her own way. The reason why The Great Seal of the United States of America was chosen is because it has often been said that the foundation of the USA, and many of its principles were based in part on Freemasonry. If so, it is logical to assume that those involved in the process, would have “left their mark,” so to speak, on such an important symbol as the national coat-of-arms.

In addition, it is true, as we shall see, that The Great Seal does indeed demonstrate many features that when seen from, and interpreted in, a Masonic point of view, are, or could be Masonic in origin. Finally, if such a occurrence happened once or twice, we could shrug it off as a coincidence, but the number of occurrences is such, that it is impossible to casually sweep it under the rug of coincidence.


What is the Great Seal?

Every country in the world has as its symbol three main symbolic devices which, either together, or individually, embodies what that country means to its people, its history, tradition or beliefs. These three devices are:

  • The national flag

  • The Coat-of-Arms of that nation

  • The national anthem

Over the years, other items have been added, such as the national flower, color, bird and the like, but the above three devices are what truly defines a nation, its people, and its history. E.R. Capt, in his booklet “Our Great Seal” says “The Great Seal given to our country, after years of laborious heraldic and symbolic study, reveals our true national origin and destiny.”

The United States of America, as every other nation in the world, possesses these three devices amongst others. The Great Seal is nothing more than a coat-of-arms of the USA. The coat-of-arms of the USA is somewhat unique, in that it has an observe, or front and a reverse, or back side to it. Most nations only have an observe. However, what makes this coat-of-arms so interesting is that the history of the USA is, as many of us are aware, quite linked to that of Freemasonry. As such, when such national devices such as its coat-of-arms are taken in an esoteric Masonic light, certain interpretations can be made.

History of the Great Seal

The Great Seal of the USA has a long history ? a long history in making it that is. It took over sixteen drafts, and over 159 years to finally adopt The Great Seal in 1935. On July 4, 1776 the Continental Congress created a committee of three members consisting of:

  • Dr. Franklin (A Mason),

  • Mr. J. Adams and

  • Mr. Thomas Jefferson

  • with Mr. Du Simitiere acting as the designer for the committee to design the national seal. Their contributions were:

    • Shield

    • E Pluribus Unum

    • Eye in the triangle


On August 20th of the same year, the committee made a recommendation, which was not acted upon until March 25, 1780 when the recommendations were referred to a new committee, consisting of:

  • Mr. James Lovell,

  • Mr. John Scott, and

  • Mr. William Houston (A Mason),

  • with Mr. Francis Hopkinson acting as the designer. Their contributions were:

    • red and white stripes

    • a shield

    • 13 stars

    • an olive branch

A design was prepared for approval on May 10, 1780 but no action was taken following debates in Congress. A third committee was set up in spring 1782, made up of:

  • Mr. Arthur Middleton,

  • Mr. John Rutledge, and

  • Mr. Elias Boudinot

  • with Mr. William Barton (A Mason) acting as the designer. Their contributions were:

    • Eagle

    • Pyramid

This committee, taking its own and the previous three reports presented a final written description (see reference I for complete text) of the proposed design to the Secretary of Congress, Charles Thomson, who submitted it to the Congress, where it was accepted on June 20, 1782. A die of the final design was cut in 1782, but it showed a crested eagle instead of the American bird prescribed by the final committee, and as such, a second die was cut in 1841 which did show an American eagle, but this time it only has 6 arrows in its talon, not the 13 as prescribed. The final die was presented and accepted by Congress. In addition, this second die had 5 pointed stars as opposed to the 6 pointed stars of the first die, the olive branches showed only 4 olives, and the eagle's feathers were only 8 in number. A third die was made in 1877 with almost no changes. A fourth die was made in 1885, and the number of olives in this die were increased to 13 leaves and 13 olives. The final die was cut in 1904.

Many papers have been written to explain the several parts of the Great Seal. Below are listed the most famous interpretations:

What portions of The Great Seal can be viewed in a Masonic Light?


A: Right wing - 32 feathers, corresponds to the 32 degrees of the Scottish Rite (the final recommendation to Congress does not specify the number of feathers. It is true that although only 32 feathers can be seen, it does not mean that that is all there is)

B: Left wing - 33 feathers, corresponds to the same 32 degrees of the Scottish Rite plus the additional degree conferred for outstanding service

A + B: Total number of feathers equal 65, which by gematria (an interpretive device in rabbinical Judaism which focuses on the numerical value of each word) is also equal to the value of the Hebrew phrase “YAM YAWCHOD,” meaning "together in unity". This phrase is found in Psalm 133 as follows: “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” and is used in our EA ritual.

C: Tail feathers - 9 feathers, corresponds to the 9 degrees of the York Rite

D: The glory - Is divided in 24 equal parts (rays glowing inwards), emblematical of the 24-inch gauge as taught in the EA degree.

  • Uses three colors, gold, silver and blue. The astrological correspondence of gold is the sun (which rules the day), of silver is the moon (which governs the night). Is blue therefore the Master, which governs the lodge (remember we call it a blue lodge)?

  • Silver in alchemy is connected with the third letter of Hebrew - Alphabet Gimel, or G

E: Star - Are 5-pointed, reminding us of the five points of fellowship

F: Star arrangement - Show as overlapping equilateral triangles, forming the Star of David, whose plan it was to build a Temple “to the Most High God.”

G: The shield - Uses the colors red, white and blue. The value of these color in gematria is 103, the same value as the phrase EHBEN HA-ADAM (the stone of Adam or the perfect ashlar, the perfect square), or the verb BONAIM, which is a Rabbinical word signifying "builders, masons."

H: The Words "E Pluribus Unum"  Means “Of Many One”, reminds us of the unity which has made brothers of many.

The number 13:

The number 13 reappears at many times in The Great Seal.

  • 13 stars in the crest

  • 13 stripes in the shield

  • 13 olive leaves

  • 13 olives

  • 13 arrows

  • 13 feathers on each arrow

  • 13 letters in “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of many one)

  • 13   letters in “Annuit Coeptis” (He hath prospered our beginning)

  • 13 elements in a pyramid (8 edges + 5 surfaces)

  • 13 cources (levels) in the pyramid

It can be discussed and debated endlessly why the number 13 appears to be so prominently used in The Great Seal. Most people believe 13 refers to the 13 original colonies of America, but this explanation does not explain why 13 is used so many times in the Great Seal, nor why it was not changed over the time after all the revisions made to the Great Seal. However, what can be said is that, amongst other meanings, the number 13 means:

  1. Many of the names associated with the Bible have 13 as a common Gematric numeral. For example:
  1. The 4 lettered name of God JEHOVAH in Gematria is 26 (2 x 13)
  2. Moses = 351 (27 x 13), Joseph = 156 (12 x 13), Isaac = 208 (16 x 13), Abraham = 104 (8 x 13), Jacob = 182 (14 x 13), Israel = 546 (42 x 13), Torah = 611 (47 x 13), Elohim = 52 (4 x 13), Amen = 39 (13 x 3)
  3. The gematric value of Jesus is 391, and 3 + 9 + 1 = 13
  1. In 13th mystery of the Tarot has no name. It marks the uncertainty, the death of something and the renewal. Many other cultures too regard 13 as symbolizing death and birth, of beginning afresh (3rd degree?)
  2. In classical terms, 13 was regarded as the most powerful. Zeus was the strongest of the 12 Olympians, which he leads, making 13.
  3. The Aztecs considered 13 as time itself, that which stood for completion. An Aztec age represented 4 cycles of 13. The Aztec week had 13 days.
  4. 13 is also associated with the Moon, which covers 13 degrees in a day, and there are 13 lunar cycles in a year (remember Moon associated with Silver, which is associated with the letter G).
  5. The letter G or Gimel (in ancient Hebrew), is also known as “the 13th path, or uniting intelligence
  6. 13 may also refer to the 13th verse of the 13th Chapter of the first book of the Testament, Matthew, which says “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, no do they understand.” Does this refer to the usage of symbols as a way of teaching or expressing a thought, much like we do in Masonry?
  7. The Sun, also an important symbol in Freemasonry, was positioned 13 degrees of Cancer on July 4, 1776.
  8. 13 to the Cabalist is associated with the Snake, a familiar Masonic symbol associated with our aprons.
  9. The 13th psalm reads “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’”
  10. The Old Testament has 780 chapters, or 780 = 60 x 13
  11. The number 13 is used 28 times in the Old Testament, and never in the New Testament
  12. The tribe of Manasseh received 13 cities (Chronicles, Chapter 6:62 - see discussion below for its significance)
  13. The tribe of Manasseh stems from the Tribe of Joseph, which was split into two groups (Ezekiel 47:13), Ephraim (which moved into Joseph’s place) and Manasseh, making in essence Manasseh the 13th tribe
  14. The only book in the Bible which 13th chapter has only 13 verses, is First Corinthian. The 13th verse of the 13th Chapter reads “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” This phrase is pivotal in our Second Degree prayer.


A: The all-seeing eye, a most obvious Masonic Symbol often also seen on Masonic aprons. It is said that the All Seeing Eye has a gematria value of 70 + 3 + 200 =273, which is the same value as the phrase EHBEN MOSU HABONIM, meaning “the stone which the builders refused”, which York Rite Masons will no doubt understand. It also has the same gematria value as HIRAM ABIFF, the architect of K.S. Temple.

B: The triangle itself is formed by two right triangles having sides of 5, 12 and 13 units in length, illustrating the 47th problem of Euclid, which is part of our 3rd degree lecture. Besides this, it is said that the unfinished pyramid suggests the unfinished Temple.

C: Some writers even mention that the plant growing at the base of the pyramid on both sides is said to be an Acacia.

The Great Seal and the Twelve Tribes of Israel

Many scholars have written numerous works linking the founding of Great Britain and the USA (amongst others) to the Twelve Tribes of Israel. As York Rite Masons know, after the death of King Solomon, his son, Rehoboam succeeded to the throne. The people asked Rehoboam to reduce the heavy taxes imposed by Solomon. This is recorded in Kings 12:4, but Rehoboam replied “My father hath chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions” (verse 11). To this Israel rebelled, under the cry “To your tents, O Israel.” The Bible clearly showed that of the twelve tribes, only Judah and Benjamin supported Rehoboam (collectively called The House of Judah), the remaining ten tribes being referred to as “The House of Israel”, which in turn were conquered and its people driven out in 721-718 B.C. ? and lost in history.

Many scholars claim that these ten tribes settled in different parts of the world. Each of the tribes had primary and secondary emblems associated with it. The emblems of the Tribe of Ephraim, said to have founded Great Britain, was the ox (primary) and the Unicorn (secondary) which are also used in the coat-of-arms of Great Britain. The primary emblem of the Tribe of Manasseh is the olive branch and the secondary a bunch of arrows ? Exactly what the eagle holds in The Great Seal.

The quest of where the ten tribes disappeared to is deep and complicated, too much so to be covered in one paper.


It remains extremely difficult to draw conclusions, or say with any great certainty what the symbols mean on the Great Seal, except for the written description and "remarks and explanation" given to Congress by the last committee. Anything else is an interpretation of the symbols - exactly the thing that makes symbols so enticing. Readers are reminded and recommended to make their own conclusions.

Deeper study into The Great Seal

Plato gave instruction how one can understand the nature and function of things. He formulated the process in four stages, which consisted of:

Stage 1) Ignorance - When one does not even know that here is anything worth knowing.

Stage 2) Opinion - Anyone can have an opinion on any subject, whether or not it is based on facts, experiences, knowledge etc.

Stage 3) Reason - With study and education, one is prepared to move to the next stage.

Stage 4) Intelligence - This is the most difficult stage, as it is only attained through one's own exertions.

Plato further specified the best way to prepare the mind to go from “Opinion” to “Reason” was the study of the so-called mathematical subjects, especially numbers themselves, music, geometry and astronomy. Of these, geometry was said to be “the purest visible expression of numbers.” Indeed Plato categorized geometry in the following three types:

  • Sacred geometry

  • Symbolic geometry

  • Philosophical geometry

This entails the study of the Monad, Dyad, and Triad amongst others. Looking at The Great Seal in this light, additional significance can be derived. Although this subject is worthy of another paper in its entirety, I have added several examples in the appendixes.


Our Flag, Joint Committee on Printing, United States Congress, 1989

The Eagle and the Shield, Department of State, 1976

The Great Seal of the USA, Department of State, 1996

The Twelve Tribes of Israel, Goldblum Seedman Corporation, 1996

The Great Seal of the USA, John MacArthur, 1998

Properties of 13, S. Desrosiers, 1998

Children of Israel, Lee Clark, 1999

Constructing the Universe ? The Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art, and Science, M. Schneider, 1994

Reference I

The final description of the Third Committee in 1782 read as follows:

    "On report of the secretary, to whom were referred the several reports on the device for a great seal, to take order:

    The device for an armorial achievement and reverse of the great seal of the United States in Congress assembled, is as follows:

    Arms: Paleways of thirteen pieces, argent and gules; a chief, azure; the escutcheon on the breast of the American eagle displayed proper, holding in his dexter talon an olive branch, and in his sinister a bundle of thirteen arrows, all proper, and in his beak a scroll, inscibed with this motto, "E Pluribus Unum".

    For a CREAST:Over the head of the eagle, which appears above the escutcheon, a glory, or, breaking through a cloud, proper, and surrounding thirteen stars, forming a constellation, argent, on an azure field.

    REVERSE: A pyramid unfinished. In the zenit, an eye in a triangle, surrounded with a glory proper. Over the eye these words, "Annuit Coeptis". On the base of the pramid the numerical letters MDCCLXXVI. And underneath the following motto, "Novus Ordo Seclorum".

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