Seal of the College

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The second, or "temple" seal of the College of William & Mary in Virginia, used from 1783-1929. The design is attributed to George Wythe.

The pillars are inscribed with the abbreviations ARS MED., NAT. PH., MOR. PH., and JURISP., and the steps are inscribed LOGIC, GEOM., and GRAM.

From 1783 through 1929, the official seal of the College of William & Mary was the "temple" seal—sometimes referred to as the second seal—having replaced the original, colonial seal, which had been in use from 1697 but was changed following the American Revolution. The seal was a metal stamp or "matrix," used for authenticating documents by making an impression in melted wax. The design of the temple seal is sometimes credited to Thomas Jefferson, but is generally acknowledged to have been designed by George Wythe.[1]

The temple seal was made in Philadelphia in 1782, cut by the engraver Robert Scot—formerly of Fredericksburg, Virginia—at a cost of £8/15s.[2] It was ordered by the Reverend James Madison, president of the college, and forwarded to Williamsburg by his cousin, (later, President) James Madison, through Richmond, via Wythe.[3]

Description of the seal

The new seal retained the college's motto in the border around the circumference, reading clockwise from the bottom, SIG. COLLEGII GULIELMI ET MARIÆ IN VIRGINIA: Seal of the College of William and Mary in Virginia. The center of the seal is filled by a squarish, two-story building of Greek Revival architecture, with three steps in the podium supporting four columns, and three urn-shaped finials (acroterions) decorating the front pediment. The two sets of windows are arched below and square above, with a single, circular window in the gable. An inscription on the frieze above the arched entrance reads, TEMP. MINERVÆ: the temple of Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom. The steps are inscribed with (top to bottom), LOGIC, GEOM., and GRAM.: logic, geometry, and grammar. The four pillars read (from left to right): ARS MED., NAT. PH., MOR. PH., and JURISP., for: the medical arts, natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and jurisprudence. Above the building is a sun-disc with a human face, emanating rays of light. At the foot of the steps is a phoenix rising from a bed of flame.

Surviving examples of the temple seal can be found on several existing university documents from the time period, including a 1787 petition from the president and professors of the College to the Virginia Chief Justice, and an honorary Doctorate of Civil Law degree given to St. George Tucker in 1790.[4]

Undated logo for the Marshall-Wythe School of Law, featuring Wythe's temple seal design.

Evidence for Wythe's design

The evidence for George Wythe's hand in designing the temple seal is detailed in Donald M. Sweig's article, "'Vert a Colledge...': A Study of the Coat-of-Arms and Seals of the College of William and Mary in Virginia" (1976). Sweig argues that Wythe had previously designed the Seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1776, and that architecture-loving Jefferson would have found the design of the building crude, at best. The phoenix and classical references in the college seal are indicative of Wythe's influence and sensibilities.

Excerpt from "'Vert a Colledge....," April 1976

Page 149

The identity of the designer of the temple seal is still uncertain. The man most often credited with designing it is Thomas Jefferson, for the presence of a classical temple as the central device quickly suggests Jeffersonian influence to the viewer. At close examination, however, his influence appears

Page 150

There is a pronounced similarity between the second seal of the College and the design of Wythe's house at Chesterville, depicted in this postcard from 1985.

somewhat less strong. The building appears far too crude to have been drawn by Jefferson.28 Not only do the basic proportions of the building lack the care and finesse of the Jeffersonian hand, but the windows neatly divided into four panes are highly unusual in classical architecture. Ralph Griswold, a Williamsburg architect and an authority on Thomas Jefferson's architectural designs, points out that Jefferson, who detested finials, would never have put them on the temple. Also, the steps on the side of the portico are out of proportion and badly drawn; Mr. Griswold concludes that Thomas Jefferson could not have drawn the building. Finally, it is extremely doubtful that Jefferson would have covered the building with inscriptions.29 There is no record of any kind among Jefferson's papers to indicate that he was involved in the designing or changing of the William and Mary seal. Certainly a man who kept records as carefully as Jefferson did would have made some notation of any involvement in redesigning the seal of his own college.

Of the multitude of other men who may possibly have designed the seal, the best case can be made for George Wythe, professor of law at William and Mary. The key to assigning the design to Wythe lies in recognizing the varied talents and interests of this man, as well as in the knowledge that he was in Williamsburg at the time the new design was made—teaching at, and vitally interested in the affairs of, the college. This latter point can be accepted without question while the former point needs to be examined before attributing the seal to Wythe. Lyon G. Tyler, in writing of the Virginia Convention of 1776, attributes the design for the new Virginia state seal to Wythe: "In Girardin's continuation of Burke's History of Virginia, it is said that Wythe proposed the device adopted by the Convention; and, as Girardin wrote under the supervision of Mr. Jefferson, who was keenly alive

28 Dr. Richard L. Morton, late Chancellor Professor of History, Emeritus, at the College of William and Mary also believed that Jefferson would have designed a better building than the temple that is on the seal.

29 The matter of the letters on the building bears some examination. The only impressions of this seal on which the letters are clearly visible are two made in wax and one made in paper in the twentieth century. In the paper impression, made about 1930, only the letters on the columns are visible. It is this impression which made it possible to decipher JURISP. on the extreme right column. In none of the early impressions of this seal can any letters be seen. This does not mean, however, that they were not on the matrix. A set of matrices for this seal still remains and when trial impressions were made at the time this paper was written, no letters could be seen—though visual examination of the matrices reveals that they do contain the letters which are on the wax impressions. The trial impressions were made on several types of paper and thin cardboard; on none of these were any letters present. There is no evidence that a second set of matrices was ever made and the wear of the extant set testifies to long use. In addition, the letters on the first column are: "ARS. MED." (medical arts) and as the medical school was discontinued in 1785 there would have been no reason for letters added later to refer to a school of the college that no longer existed. It is therefore safe to conclude that the lettering on the temple was there in the original design cf 1782.

Page 151

to all such matters, there can be no reason to doubt the fact." This point is substantiated by Wythe's own words. Writing to Jefferson on November 18, 1776, he notes, "I understand by the person employed to draw the figures for our great seal that you intended to propose an alteration in those on the reverse. I wish you would propose it; for though I had something to do in designing them, I do not like them."30 Therefore, both Jefferson's statement to Louis Hue Girardin and Wythe's own words support the position that he designed the Virginia state seal.

Interestingly, the reverse of the 1776 Virginia seal, which Wythe said he helped design, contains: "AETERNITAS, with the globe and phoenix."31 The phoenix is the most striking addition to the temple seal; and here it appears in another seal, with none other than Thomas Jefferson attributing the design to George Wythe. The case for Wythe as the designer of the 1782 William and Mary temple seal may be summarized briefly. Wythe was both willing and able to design seals; and a seal which he had designed contained an unusual device, the phoenix, which later appeared in the temple seal. Finally, there is no one else for whom so strong a case can be made as Wythe. This is not to say that he might not have consulted with others on the design; Jefferson and Wythe were friends, and it is entirely possible that Jefferson may have mentioned the idea of a temple for the William and Mary seal to Wythe.32 Certainly Madison, president of the college, would have been consulted. However, the actual execution of the temple in the design, the use of the phoenix, and the use of the inscriptions on the temple all indicate that the designer was George Wythe.

30 William and Mary Quarterly, 1st ser., III (1894), 91; Papers of Thomas Jefferson, IV, 36.

31 Italics added.

32 It is worth noting that Wythe's father-in-law, Richard Taliaferro, was among the foremost architects in Virginia. Taliaferro, who died in 1775, had designed the Wythe house in Williamsburg and had executed architectural designs for the Governor's Palace.

See also


  1. Donald M. Sweig, "'Vert a Colledge....': A Study of the Coat-of-Arms and Seals of the College of William and Mary in Virginia," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 84, no. 2 (April 1976), 142-165.
  2. William T. Hutchinson, et al., The Papers of James Madison VII (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 153. Cited in Sweig, 147.
  3. Ibid. Cited in Sweig, 148.
  4. Petition of the President and Professors, Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary; University Archives Diploma File Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.

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