Jefferson and a Proposed Seal for America

[Pictured: Moses] While in Congress in 1776, Thomas Jefferson served on a committee to propose a national seal for authenticating official documents. Jefferson proposed on August 20 they use an image of “…the Israelites: rays from a pillar of fire in the cloud, expressive of the divine presence, and command, reaching to Moses who stands on the shore and, extending his hand over the sea, causes it to overwhelm Pharaoh. Motto: Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone says that Jefferson had the motto “put on his own seal later, and made it a personal slogan throughout life.”*

[Note: The book The Tyrannicide Brief by Geoffrey Robertson shows how the idea of rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God is an idea carried out by some of the radical independent Protestants. The ultimate example of that is in England, after the victory of Cromwell and the religious independents during their Civil War, they eventually put their own king on trial—and executed him. On January 30, 1649, King Charles I was beheaded. This was an extreme example of that notion that to obey God requires disobeying a king, who for all practical purposes had unkinged himself.]

About this same time, Jefferson’s account book shows his ongoing relationships with Anglican clergymen. In Philadelphia he came to know Rev. Jacob Duché of Christ Church who also served as chaplain for the Continental Congress. Duché was the man whom Congress called on (September 7, 1774), when they officially began congressional meetings of the united colonies for the first time ever, to open the proceedings in prayer. Rev. Duché prayed so well that John Adams wrote his wife to tell her how meaningful that lengthy prayer was to him. He bemoaned the fact that their own minister back home didn’t pray like that. Meanwhile, Jefferson enclosed a copy of a new form of prayer suggested by Duché in a letter to John Page. This form of prayer in his possession implies also Jefferson’s attendance at Christ Church, while residing in Philadelphia.

Jefferson returned home briefly from Philadelphia before going to Williamsburg on October 6 for two months of service in the General Assembly in order to revise various laws. In the course of this work during the final months of 1776, Jefferson personally compiled nine documents that reflected very orthodox beliefs. He may have agreed with these beliefs, but like his earlier literary commonplace college notes, it cannot be proven because he made no comments on them.

*Jefferson also embraced Ben Franklin’s proposal for the seal and rewrote it as follows: “Pharoah . . . passing thro’ the divided waters of the Red sea in pursuit of the Israelites: rays from a pillar of fire in the cloud, expressive of the divine presence and command, reaching to Moses who stands on the shore and, extending his hand his over the sea, causes it to overwhelm Pharaoh. Motto: Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” It was proposed to Congress on August 20 but tabled. Julian Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), 1:495. Henry Randall writes that “had his wishes been consulted, the symbol borne on our national seal would have contained our public profession of Christianity as a nation.” For more on this motto, see Malone, Jefferson the Virginian (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Co., 1948), 226. On the opposite side of the seal, Jefferson proposed recognizing the Anglo-Saxon founders of Britain who were pagans at the time.

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