Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Great Seal of the United States

A-100 is underway, and with it a deluge of charming, useful, and baffling information.  There are acronym lists to ingest, letter-writing templates to digest, protocols to observe, and emails to draft.  Amidst all that, there are really delightful history lessons to be had.  Since this is public knowledge, and indeed knowledge created for and by the public, I thought I might share with you all a bit I found particularly interesting.

The Department of State was once known as the Department of Foreign Affairs.  America being America, it was decided early on that Foreign Affairs alone were not enough to sustain a department.  At one time in the nation's history, the Department of State was responsible for not only representing American interests abroad, but also for administering the census, printing money (oh my goodness if only) and keeping the Great Seal of the United States.

Today, many of those duties have been tasked to other departments, as it has come to pass that managing Foreign Affairs is a full time job.  DoS has retained one of its former civil duties, however, and it's delightful: we keep the Great Seal.

The Great Seal of the United States is highly symbolic, and while it does follow traditional rules of heraldic design (known as rules of tincture) it contains a number of unique elements.  The Eagle is a heraldic symbol of virtue, but the Bald Eagle is used only on this seal, and until such time as we saw fit to use it, was not considered a heraldic symbol.  The stars (or mulletts) on the crest above the Eagle's head are 5 pointed today, though they were originally 6-pointed.  Their order also describes a 6 pointed star.  The olive branch and arrows signify exactly what you might imagine.

The seal is, however, not simply a design.  It is a physical thing, and every year it is physically used to affix the one Great Seal of the United States to between 2000 and 3000 of these documents.  The Seal Press is the implement that makes these impressions with the Seal.  It resides in a locked glass cabinet, and remains locked even while being used.

Being that it is a physical object ( The Seal press and the Seal itself), it had to have been made by someone.  Before the country had a department of engraving, that job fell to whosoever won the contract.  Tiffany & Co, Baily Banks & Biddle were but two of the firms tasked with the manufacture of the Seal itself, a task which resulted in a slightly different version every time it was recast.  Seals of the past have differed in proportion, olive branch design, star points (as mentioned above), talon length, and nearly everything else.  Every change was hotly contested in Congress, but it is the result of those changes that we have the symbol we recognize today.

It is the symbol of all official communications from the president, it is the symbol of centuries of International Treaties, it is the symbol of the will of this Nation, expressed throughout the world, and in 5 weeks it will be the symbol emblazoned upon my confirmation.

A diplomat is something to be.