The Arms of the United States: Criticisms and Rebuttals

by Joseph McMillan

The Status of the Arms

From time to time, one runs across statements in the heraldic literature implying, or even stating, that the United States has no official coat of arms, only a seal. For example, Stephen Friar’s  Dictionary of Heraldry (1987) manages to discuss the design without referring to it by the term arms, referring to it instead as "the device of the United States." (This is at least better than Friar's treatment of the impeccably heraldic arms of Pennsylvania, which he describes as “quasi-armorial"). In fact, from 2004 until recently, the Wikipedia article on the U.S. great seal actually included the direct statement that “the United States has never adopted any national coat of arms,” and that “the use of the image from the obverse of great seal as a coat of arms is merely informal.” 

Yet the federal government has always seemed to believe that the United States does have an official coat of arms. On February 4, 1790, as the first item of business at its very first sitting, the United States Supreme Court ordered that the central device of “the seal of the Court shall be the Arms of the United States.” Since then, orders establishing medals and flags, regulations governing the diplomatic, consular and military services, and even laws enacted by Congress have all referred to "the arms of the United States," with no evident belief that there was any need to define further what was meant. More than two centuries of official references to the “arms of the United States” certainly imply that such arms officially exist. An official State Department publication declares that the design on the obverse of the great seal is the coat of arms of the United States.

So who’s right, the U.S. government or the critics?

If it looks like a duck…

By any reasonable interpretation, the design used by the United States as a coat of arms is, in fact, a coat of arms. It consists of the standard elements of a coat of arms: shield of heraldic design, crest, supporter, and motto. Any heraldist who saw this composition for the first time, without knowing what is was, would unhesitatingly identify it as a coat of arms. The question is not whether it is a coat of arms, but whether it is officially the United States coat of arms.

…and swims like a duck…

As noted above, the design on the front of the seal has been used by the United States as a coat of arms, completely apart from the seal, almost since its adoption. Indeed, it is interesting to note that it was used in many of the same ways that the royal arms were officially used in the United Kingdom: as the central design of the colors and standards of Army regiments; on gold and silver coins and paper currency; above the entrances to diplomatic missions, custom houses, and other public buildings; at the headings of printed copies of proclamations and other official documents, on the personal flags of the President, Vice President, and the secretaries of several cabinet department; as a cap badge for the Army (since 1839) and Air Force (since 1947) as well as on other military equipage; on postage stamps, stationery, publications, and public monuments. 

…and quacks like a duck…

Those who argue that the arms are unofficial maintain that there has never been a piece of legislation stating in so many words that “the arms of the United States of America are…” whatever. This reflects a misreading of the legislative language, which must be understood in the context of the clear legislative intent embedded in the records of the three design committees.

The first committee charged with developing a seal started its report by stating that “The great Seal sh[oul]d on one side have the Arms of the United States of America, which arms should be as follows…” Both of its successor committees took that understanding as their starting point. The second committee, for example, recommended, “On one Side the Arms of the United States, as follows...” It was no longer a question of whether the obverse of the seal would consist of the arms, but what the arms would look like. 

The third committee’s report, prepared by William Barton, is headed, “Device for an Armorial Atchievement & Reverse of a Great Seal, for the United States of North America.” This phraseology suggests that the third committee, like its predecessors, understood designing of the seal to consist of two parts: (1) the arms of the United States, and (2) the reverse of the great seal of the United States. Such an interpretation is borne out by the way Barton captioned the blazon of the final design when it was submitted for approval: “Device for an Armorial Atchievement for the United States of North-America.” In this document, there was no need to refer to the reverse, as only the obverse—the armorial achievement, or coat of arms—was being described, the reverse remaining as recommended by the third committee. The term “armorial achievement” and indeed the specific word “arms” both appear in the final legislative record, the journal of proceedings prepared by Charles Thomson. Obviously, this is a coat of arms, and obviously it was approved by the Continental Congress as a coat of arms.

…it's probably a duck!

But, it is objected, whose arms? The arms of Congress, or the arms of the United States? The printed edition of the Journals of the Continental Congress gives the following preambular language to the approving resolution: “The device for an armorial atchievement and reverse of the great seal for the United States in Congress assembled, is as follows…” The hand-engrossed version of the resolution, however, says “The Device for an armorial atchievement and reverse of a great Seal is as follows…” The distinction is an important one: under the Articles of Confederation, the name of the country was the United States of America; “the United States in Congress Assembled” was the official style of Congress. But the apparent contradiction can be easily reconciled. The seal was that of Congress; there was no other central entity whose seal it could be. Thus, when the new Constitution went into effect in 1789, one of the first acts of the new Congress was to provide “that the seal heretofore used by the United States in Congress assembled, shall be, and hereby is declared to be, the seal of the United States.” The functions for which a great seal was needed—authentication of commissions of office, ratification of treaties with foreign powers, and so on—had been transferred out of the hands of Congress; the seal therefore had to be transferred as well.

But throughout this transition, the arms on the seal remained those of the United States of America, as the designers had intended. No act of the new Congress was necessary to ratify this fact, any more than to ratify the flag adopted in 1777 as the national flag under the new Constitution. The entity whose seal had been adopted in 1782 had changed, but the country whose arms had been adopted at the same time had not. The shield, “Paleways of thirteen Argent and Gules a chief Azure,” borne on the breast of an American bald eagle with a crest of stars surrounded by a glory breaking through clouds, continued to be borne, and continues to this day to be borne, as the official arms of the United States of America.

↑ Back to Top

The Blazon of the Shield

Heraldic purists have sometimes criticized the official blazon of the shield of the U.S. arms for using the expression “paleways of thirteen pieces, argent and gules.” In the first place, “paleways” (or “palewise”) is ordinarily used to describe a specific object lying in a vertical direction on the shield. A shield divided into multiple vertical stripes is said to be paly, not paleways. In the second, according to British heraldic conventions a shield can only be paly (or barry or bendy, if striped horizontally or diagonally) of an even number of stripes. An odd number of stripes must be described by giving the background tincture of the field and then stating the number of stripes of the opposite tincture that appear on it—in the case of the arms of the United States, Argent six pallets (vertical stripes) Gules. 

So why does the resolution adopting the arms commit such a basic mistake? Didn’t Thomson and Barton know any better? Actually, they knew exactly what they were doing, as can be seen in William Barton’s footnote to the “Remarks and Explanation” submitted to Congress along with the blazon:

As the Pales or Pallets consist of an uneven Number, they ought, in strictness, to be blazoned—Argt 6 pallets Gules: but as the 13 pieces allude to the thirteen States, they are blazoned according to the Number of pieces paleways. 

Barton apparently didn’t realize that the “rule” against an odd number of divisions is purely a British one. In fact, the English heraldist John Gibbon had written 100 years before that “Foreigners make no matter, neither in Paly, Barry, nor Bendy, whether the pieces be even or odd, provided they be of an equal latitude" (Introductio ad Latinum Blasoniam). Had he been aware of that, Barton might have remarked the absurdity of criticizing the arms of the United States for not obeying British rules, since the entire reason for the arms’ existence was that the United States had renounced British rule. 

In any case, the last and perhaps most compelling word on the matter appears in a more elaborate footnote in a version of the “Remarks and Explanation,” believed to be by Barton, printed in the Columbian Magazine in September 1786: “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.”

↑ Back to Top

The Crest

Ever since the revival of interest in medieval models of heraldry in the late 19th century, the crest of the U.S. coat of arms—that is, the constellation of stars above the eagle’s head—has been criticized as improper on the grounds that it could not be modeled as a solid, three-dimensional object and mounted on the top of a knight’s helmet. Such solid objects mounted atop the helm are the basis of the heraldic crest, and it is now a matter of heraldic orthodoxy that a crest which could not plausibly be displayed in this original form is a bad crest, or even not a crest at all. 

Patterson and Dougall, in The Eagle and the Shield, concede this point, but argue that in abandoning the traditional heraldic use of a helmet in his design of the American arms, Charles Thomson was thereby entitled to diverge from the strict heraldic practice concerning the nature of the crest. Patterson and Dougall also point out that it was well within the European heraldic tradition of the time for arms of sovereignty displayed on the breast of a displayed eagle to have a crown floating above the eagle’s head in lieu of a crest; there was no reason that a republic shouldn’t have an emblem of its own sovereignty occupying a similar position. 

What Patterson and Dougall don’t say is that during the period when the arms of the United States were designed, an era ridiculed by later writers as one of “paper heraldry,” such “impossible crests” were not considered at all inappropriate. Indeed, England’s own kings of arms granted a number of such crests between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, most famously that of Sir Francis Drake, which included an arm issuing downward from a cloud. Moreover, if we look at the very earliest representations of heraldic crests worn atop knight’s helmets in the 13th century, we find that many of them consisted of flat fan-like panels on which various motifs were painted. It would not have been difficult to create a medieval version of the United States crest along these lines—on the contrary, it would have been a design very much in keeping with this early phase of heraldic development.

In any case, Patterson and Dougall make what is probably the clinching argument in the matter: the crest of a constellation of stars within a glory didn’t have to satisfy the technical requirements of heraldic regulations of that or any other time. It had to satisfy the United States Congress. It was approved by the ruling body of a sovereign state—and that’s sufficient authority under anyone’s heraldic rules.

↑ Back to Top

The Eagle

Another objection offered is that the eagle serves as a single supporter, yet is treated in the blazon as part of the arms. The answer is that it is part of the arms, just as the supporters in the British royal arms are part of the arms, just as the supporters in an English grant of arms to a peer are part of the arms. The “Remarks and Explanation” submitted to Congress along with the design make this clear: “The Escutcheon is borne on the breast of an American Eagle without any othersupporters…[emphasis added].”

Elements of the above discussion are drawn from the official history of the great seal of the United States, Richard S. Patterson and Richardson Dougall, The Eagle and the Shield: A History of the Great Seal of the United States, Department of State Publication 8900 (Washington: Department of State, 1978)

↑ Back to Top