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Heraldry in the USA
The Arms of the United States: Myths, Mistakes, and Misconceptions
by Joseph McMillan
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Probably the best-known story related to the creation of the arms and great seal of the United States is that Benjamin Franklin opposed the choice of the eagle as the national bird, favoring instead the "more respectable" turkey. Getting to the bottom of this legend is such an involved process that we have devoted an entire page to the task.
The story has been widely propagated, sometimes by people who ought to know better, that the eagle's head in the United States arms is switched from right to left (dexter to sinister) whenever the United States is at war, so that the eagle looks toward the arrows of war rather than the olive branch of peace. This myth is particularly associated with the arms used on the Presidential seal.
It seems to have arisen from President Harry Truman's decision to alter the Presidential seal in 1945 so that the eagle's head looked to the right (dexter)--the correct heraldic direction, which had been followed on every cutting of the great seal. In explaining the change, the White House noted that this made the eagle face the olive branch representing peace. People associated the timing of the change with the end of World War II, and thus a myth was created.
The problem is that the eagle on the Presidential seal had faced to the left continuously since at least the 1870s and possibly earlier. There was nothing unusual about this: many other official emblazonments of the national arms also had left-facing eagles, including the one on the seal of the Department of State. During the roughly 70 years in which the left-facing eagle appeared on the Presidential seal, the United States was at war less than seven years. Since the change was made in 1946, the eagle on the Presidential seal, as well as on the great seal and every other official representation of the arms used by the U.S. government, has constantly faced to the right, whether or not U.S. forces are engaged in conflict.
The simple truth is that after five-star generals and admirals were created in the U.S. armed forces during World War II, President Roosevelt, and then President Truman, felt that the Presidential flag should be upgraded to have more than the four stars previously used. In the process of the redesign, the War Department's chief heraldic expert, Arthur E. DuBois, pointed out the heraldic impropriety of the eagle's facing to sinister, and with the President's approval he simply corrected the error.
For years, people have claimed to find hidden meaning in the design of the United States great seal, especially on the reverse (the side, never cut or used, with the pyramid and the all-seeing eye), but also in the arms that appear on the obverse. Predictably, the two leading influences to which this esoteric significance is attributed are those two favorite bogeymen of conspiracy theorists, the Freemasons and the Jews. Perhaps surprisingly, many Freemasons and Jews, proud of their antecedents' respective roles in the American Revolution, often reinforce the conspiracy theorists' claims by finding the same hidden symbolism. But none of it has any basis in reality.
Both the school of thought which attributes important details of the design to Masonic influence and that which attributes many of the same details to Jewish influence base their analyses on the version of the arms that appears on the reverse of the modern U.S. $1 bill. The advocates of a Masonic explanation count the feathers in the eagle's wings and find 32 in one (the number of ordinary degrees in Scottish Rite Masonry) and 33 in the other (the ordinary degrees plus the extraordinary 33rd degree). They count nine feathers in the tail, corresponding to the nine degrees of the York Rite. Those who attribute the design to Jewish influence find the nine branches of a Jewish Hannukah menorah in the tail feathers, or the seven branches of an ordinary menorah in the seven white stripes on the shield. Both groups see the stars in the crest above the eagle's head arranged into the shape of a six-pointed star and find in that the "Seal of Solomon" or "Star of David," symbols of Freemasonry and Judaism respectively. Some, especially those who favor the Masonic explanation, claim to find deep numerological significance from adding together the various numbers embedded in the design--not only the feathers but also the number of rays surrounding the stars in the crest--and converting those numbers into Hebrew letters. Supporters of the Masonic theory also attribute the eagle itself, the five-pointed stars in the crest, and the colors red, white, and blue to Masonic examplars. Supporters of the Jewish theory detect in the numbers of stars, arrows, olive leaves, and olives a reference to the 12 tribes plus one for the whole people of Israel. Even more elaborate explanations are sometimes offered by conflating Jews and Masons together into an even vaster global conspiracy.
These interpretations of the arms are very ingenious. Unfortunately, they collapse when confronted with some basic facts:
"Great Star" flag flown over U.S. Capitol, 1818
Image by Blas Delgado Ortiz, Flags of the World
In summary, for explanations of the arms that depend so heavily on complicated mathematics, these simply don't add up.
The arms of George Washington?
Arms of George Washington
No. Winthrop W. Aldrich, at the time American ambassador to the Court of St. James, gave new life to this old myth in a speech he gave at the Washington ancestral home in England in 1955: "Who cannot resist the conjecture that here at Washington Old Hall is the true origin of the 'Stars and Stripes' and the Great Seal of the United States Government?" Ever since the 19th century, many have been unable to resist the conjecture that the American flag and coat of arms are derived from the armorial bearings of President Washington. Unfortunately, there is not a shred of evidence that the one had anything to do with the other. Washington was not involved with the committee that designed the flag in 1777, and in heraldic terms there is very little connection between the two designs. Moreover, the sequence by which the flag evolved belies any influence of the Washington arms. Nor was he involved with the committee that designed the great seal and coat of arms in 1782. The design of the shield in the national arms, with vertical stripes ("pallets") and no stars, bears no heraldic resemblance whatever to the Washington bearings. Finally, nowhere in the records of any of the committees involved with the flag or the arms is there any indication of a desire to honor Washington with the flag or the arms, honors which it would have been quite out of character for Washington to accept in any case, considering how he reacted to other attempts to create a cult of personality around him.
The arms of Governor Jonathan Belcher of New Jersey?
Arms of Jonathan Belcher
No. An organization called the Belcher Foundation has assiduously promoted the theory, but without any real evidence to support it, that the shield of the national arms was derived from that of Jonathan Belcher (1682-1757). Belcher served as colonial governor, at various times, of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and, for the last decade of his life, New Jersey, where he used a seal of his arms to authenticate his signature on certain official documents. It is true that Belcher's arms, Or three pallets Gules a chief Vair, have the same basic format of vertical stripes and a chief as the shield of the United States arms, but that is also true of many other completely unrelated bearings. Beyond that superficial resemblance, Belcher partisans rely on unproven speculation about remote personal associations between Belcher and various figures associated with the design of the national arms. For example, they point out that Charles Thomson, the secretary of Congress who came up with the design of the supporter and crest of the arms, had taught at the academy in Philadelphia founded by Benjamin Franklin, who apparently had known Belcher at the time. Of course, this would have been 25 or more years before the U.S. arms were designed, at a time when the man who actually designed the shield of the arms (William Barton) was less than three years old. In short, as in the case of the theory about the influence of the Washington arms on those of the United States, there's not a shred of evidence to support this one, either.
The arms of a Bristol shipowner named Richard Amerike?
Arms of Richard Amerike
No. Richard Amerike (ap Meryk) was a shipowner of Welsh descent active in fishing and trading voyages out of Bristol, England, in the late 15th century. In the 1890s, his name was found on various documents connected with the 1497-1498 voyages of the explorer John Cabot. The uncanny resemblance between Amerike's name and the word "America" led in 1908 to the proposal that America had actually been named for him rather than for the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci, as is generally believed. While most historians give little credence to this theory, Amerike's partisans go further and state flatly (as Peter MacDonald has written on no less than the BBC's website) that the U.S. flag, and by extension the arms, are "based on the design of Amerike's arms." Here again, we have a coat of arms--in this case Paly of six Or and Azure on a fess over all Gules three mullets Argent--with a superficial resemblance to the U.S. arms, but once more without an iota of evidence that it actually inspired William Barton's design of the U.S. shield. Indeed, since Richard Amerike had been long since forgotten by 1782, and wouldn't be rediscovered until almost 100 years after the U.S. national arms were adopted, the notion that his arms could have served as a model is ludicrous.
It should not be thought unusual, in a country where the national symbols are considered the property of the people rather than of the government, that there should be many emblazonments of the national arms that do not conform exactly to the legal blazon. It may be somewhat more surprising that the same errors have often crept into official renderings. The following are some of the more common mistakes to look out for.
From an early date, emblazonments of the arms can be found in which the eagle's head is turned to its own left, rather than to the right as would be the norm in a proper heraldic composition. What significance does this have?
Apparently none. The most likely reason for the variation is that the legal blazon of the arms does not specify which way the eagle looks. It didn't have to; by heraldic convention, any bird or beast automatically faces to its own right unless the blazon of the arms stipulates otherwise. But the United States was not rich in trained heraldic artists, and it is quite probable that many craftsmen contracted to produce renderings of the arms for various official and unofficial purposes simply didn't know it mattered. Another factor may have been that many early renderings were engraved, which requires the artist to cut the emblazonment in mirror image, so that it will come out properly when impressed on paper.
Once the error crept in, it is probable that other painters, seamstresses, and metalworkers simply reproduced whatever they saw in the models from which they were working, unaware that there was anything wrong with them, and the government officials supervising the work usually knew no more about the subject than they did.
Mix-ups in which claw held the olive branches (it should be the right claw, from the eagle's point of view) and which held the arrows (the left) started appearing even before mix-ups involving the direction of the eagle's head--at least as early as 1797. The Congressional resolution that adopted the arms and seal in 1782 clearly states that the olive branches go in the dexter--right--talon. Part of the confusion may have arisen from a lack of awareness that the directions on heraldic blazons always refer to the design as it would be seen by a person carrying the arms. Thus, the heraldic dexter refers to the left side of the achievement as it is seen by the viewer. As with the direction of the eagle's head, this would appear to have been the result of simple error, with no symbolic significance intended.
Two errors: stars on chief, wrong arrangement of stripes
Source: Naval Historical Center
The arms of the United States are often depicted with white stars—usually 13 of them—arrayed on the blue chief of the shield. This is an error; the only stars in the coat of arms are those in the crest, above the eagle’s head. The placement of stars within the shield seems to derive from two sources. The first is the instinct that the shield should be in some sense an armorial version of the national flag, and undoubtedly the design of the shield was influenced by that of the Stars and Stripes. The second is that the shield is often displayed without the supporter and crest, and there is a feeling that the design is incomplete without stars. As a result, the tendency is to move them from the absent crest to the chief. There are a number of uses of the arms in which, while undoubtedly originating from a mistaken emblazonment, the official description requires the presence of the stars. Examples are the cap badges of officers of the Navy and Coast Guard and the variant of the coat of arms used in seals of naval commands, ships, and installations. Nevertheless, as a general proposition, when the arms of the United States are depicted, there should be no stars on the chief.
A related mistake is to depict the shield with seven red and six white stripes. Again, the error seems to derive from a feeling that the arms should have the same arrangement of stripes as the national flag, but this is not the case. The legal definition of the arms requires seven white and six red stripes, not the other way around.
There is no single correct way to depict any coat of arms, including that of the United States. While most emblazonments used officially nowadays copy the artistic rendering introduced for the great seal in 1885, the correct heraldic principle is for the artist to enjoy the freedom to depict the arms in any way that complies with the official written blazon. Historically, there have been a wide variety of artistic interpretations used for official purposes, some of which are illustrated in our page on "The Arms of the USA: Artistic Expression."
While official colors are prescribed by federal manufacturing specifications for the production of flags for official government use, these specifications do not apply to the coat of arms. Indeed, there have been many different shades of red and blue used in various emblazonments over the years, a practice which is entirely consistent with traditional heraldic rules.
Many people believe that the olive branch held in the eagle's right talon is supposed to have 13 leaves and 13 olives, just as his left talon holds 13 arrows representing the 13 states. There is no reason an artist shouldn't depict the arms with 13 leaves and olives, and in fact the present emblazonment on the great seal, which is also used for many other official purposes, does show 13 leaves and olives, but this is purely a matter for the artist's discretion. The legal blazon of the arms does not specify any particular number.