"The Seals of Virginia"
Edward S. Evans, during his time as Assistant State Librarian, began work on "The Seals of Virginia" at the request of the State Librarian, John P. Kennedy. After Evans resigned from his position in 1907, he continued work on the monograph, which was then published in the annual report of the library in 1909.
Evan's interest in the seals of Virginia began when he was asked to design the official library stationery, and upon researching the correct seal he found many different designs and discrepancies in what the correct seal design included. This inspired Evans to do further research into the background of the seals and to write this monograph.
Seals of Virginia.
Period of Statehood.
As the various quarterings on the arms of private families often depict by heraldic symbol great deeds performed, so the great seal of a commonwealth should not only be the symbol of sovereignty, but should be a faithful reflection of the great principles which are the foundation of the state's very existence, and an expositor of the science, literature, history and art of its period. It should be a great picture of the noble impulses and truths of the commonwealth's life reduced to a miniature, yet clear and precise in detail. In other words, it should be the multum in parvo. Such is the seal of Virginia. The importance of the great seal of the Commonwealth, as an emblem of sovereignty and an evidence of high political functions, was appreciated by the Convention of 1776, and it appointed a committee composed of some of the greatest minds of the day to prepare the design for the seal. The committee consisted of Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, Mr. Treasurer [Robert Carter Nicholas] and George Wythe. The following is an abstract from the minutes of the Virginia convention of Friday, July 5, 1 1776:
. . . "Mr. George Mason, from the committee appointed to devise a proper seal for this Commonwealth, reported that the committee had accordingly prepared the following device thereof; which he read in his place, and afterwards delivered in at the clerk's table, where the same was again twice read and agreed to.
TO BE ENGRAVED ON THE GREAT SEAL.
VIRTUS, the genius of the Commonwealth, dressed like an Amazon, resting on a spear with one hand, and holding a sword in the other, and treading on TYRANNY, represented by a man prostrate, a crown fallen from his head, a broken chain in his left hand, and a scourge in his right. In the exergon, the word VIRGINIA over the head of VIRTUS: and underneath the words Sic Semper Tyrannis. On the reverse, a groupe. LIBERTAS, with her wand and pileus. On one side of her CERES, with the cornucopia in one hand, and an ear of wheat in the other. On the other side AETERNITAS, with the globe and phoenix. In the exergon, these words:
DEUS NOBIS HAEC OTIA FECIT.
Resolved, that George Wythe, and John Page, Esquires, be desired to superintend the engraving the said seal, and to take care that the same be properly executed. . . ." The authorship of the design has been a disputed point among historians for many years. Col. Sherwin McRae, in his report to the Governor on the State Seal, made Feb. 25, 1884, gives the credit to George Mason, emphasizing particu-
larly the fact that the description could have been written by no other hand than that which wrote the Declaration of Rights. I can find no grounds whatever for this view except the fact that George Mason made the report of the Committee to the Convention.
The description which thus excited Col. McRae's admiration was so lacking in clearness, and such confusion took place thereby in the designing of the seal at later times that the General Assembly passed an Act in 1873 and again in 1903 describing the seal with greater minuteness in order to overcome this difficulty.
On the other hand, the facts as stated in Geo. W. Munford's note in the Code of Virginia, 1873, p. 122, seems to offer a stronger claim for the authorship by George Wythe than any that has ever been advanced for Mason. He says: "The late Wm. Munford, who was a pupil of Chancellor Wythe and lived in his house for several years, studied law under his guidance and direction, was in habits of great intimacy with him to the day of his death and delivered the eulogy at his funeral in 1806, stated repeatedly and implicitly to the editor that Mr. Wythe always claimed the paternity of the Seal, and the Convention, who knew to whom the honor belonged, appointed Mr. Wythe, and Mr. Jno. Page, the first as the man who designed it, to superintend the engraving and take care that it should be properly executed."
The Committee received suggestions and help from such distinguished men as Benj. Franklin, Thos. Jefferson, Benj. West, the famous artist, and the then well-known engraver de Cimetiere. The following is the idea offered by Dr. Franklin as a design for the seal of Virginia:
MOSES—standing on the shore and extending his hand over the sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharoah, who is sitting on an open chariot, a crown on his head, and a sword in his hand. Rays, frame a pillow of fire in the clouds, reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by the command of the Deity.
Motto—Rebellion to Tyrants, in obedience to God.
Dr. Franklin, who was on July 4, 1776, appointed by the Continental Congress to serve on a committee with Mr. J. Adams and Mr. Jefferson "to prepare a device for a Seal of the United States of North America" offered the same scheme for the reverse of the U.S. seal and the Committee reported favorably on it, but it did not meet with the approval of Congress and was not adopted. The coat of arms for Virginia as devised by M. de Cimetiere of Philadelphia, was as follows: Field-a cross of St. George (as a remnant of the ancient Coat of Arms, showing the origin of the Virginians to be English) haying in the center a sharp pointed knife, in pale, blade argent, handle or, alluding to the name the Indians have given to that state.
In the first quarter, a tobacco plant fleury, proper.
In the second argent, two wheat sheafs in saltoir, proper.
In the third argent, a stalk of Indian corn, full ripe, proper.
In the fourth vert, four fasces waved argent, alluding to the 4 great rivers of Virginia.
N. B. The pieces contained in the above, may very well admit of a different disposition, if thought necessary, any more emblematical or heraldical.
SUPPORTERS—Dexter, a figure dressed as in the time of Queen Elizabeth, representing Sir Walter Raleigh, planting with his right hand the standard of Liberty, with the words of Magna Charta written on it, and with his left supporting the escutcheon.
SINISTER—A Virginian rifleman of the present times, completely accoutered.
CREST—The crest of the ancient arms of Virginia—the breast of a Virgin naked, and crowned with an antique crown, alluding to Queen Elizabeth, in whose reign the country was discovered.
Motto—Rebellion to Tyrants in obedience to God; or Rex est qui regem non habet. (Suggested by Mr. Jefferson.)
Another interesting design which there is no reason to suppose ever came before the Committee is that which appeared as heading for the Virginia Gazette during the months of May and June, 1776. It consisted of the heading "Thirteen Colonies—United we stand, Divided we fall," below which was the following coat of arms:
On a shield a coiled rattle snake with head in dexter chief and tail in sinister base.
SUPPORTERS: Dexter—a bear rampant, with collar around neck and loose flowing rope attached to the collar;
SINISTER, a dear rampant.
Back of the bear is a stalk of growing corn, and back of the deer is growing plant of tobacco.
The CREST consists of a knight’s helmet surmounted by a wreath upon which is a demi virgin queen crowned with an ancient crown. Underneath is the motto: "Don’t tread on me."On July 20th, Mr. John Page wrote thus to Mr. Thomas Jefferson:
"We are very much at a loss here, for an engraver to make our seal. Mr. Wythe and myself have, therefore, thought of it proper to apply to you to assist in this business. Can you get the work done in Philadelphia? If you can, we must get the favor of you to have it done immediately. The enclosed will be all the direction you will require. The engraver may want to know the size. This you may determine; unless Mr. Wythe should direct the dimensions. He may also be at a loss for a Virtus and Libertas; but you may refer him to Spence's Polymetis, which must be in some Library in Philadelphia." . . .
Spence's Polymetis referred to above was and is one of the best authorities describing Greek and Roman characters. It was published many years before this period, and the wood cuts used, though accurate in general and engraved with classical simplicity, were some of them poorly executed and as compared with our present standards of engraving.
The accompanying illustration (No. 12) is from a photograph of the cut representing "Virtus" or "Fortitudo" appearing in Spence's Polymetis.
"Virtus is a Roman goddess, dressed either in a flowing white robe, or like an Amazon, holding in the left hand a peculiar sword, called a parazonium, sheathed and inverted, or point upward and not pendant, worn as a badge of honor, and not as a weapon of attack or defence. The right hand resting on a spear point downward and touching the earth; her head erect and face upturned; her foot on the globe—the world at her feet; posture indicating proud
consciousness of victory—conquest completed. Such is the Roman Virtus and such the Virtus of the seal, substituting Tyranny for the globe, and especially prescribing the dress of the Amazons for Virtus."*
The significance of the entire seal depends on the significance of Virtus: fortitude, courage, and even more—virtue and abstinence, as opposed to the goddess Voluptas, but, above all, courage, that chief of Roman virtues, the foundation of the Roman Empire. "Rome, ever sustained by Virtus, the type of courage, commanded victory by not admitting the possibility of defeat." "As by the theory of Rome, it was her destiny to accomplish everything which she undertook, she is represented not in progression, but at the time of completion; not in action, but as having finished her work." This is the significance of Virtus as understood by Wythe, himself a classical scholar, and by the committee who reported the device to the Convention of 1776. This fact is further emphasized by the motto on the reverse side of the seal: "Deus Nobis Haec Otia Fecit," God has given us this ease.
The desire of the Committee to use the Polymetis as a standard, as voiced in John Page’s letter to Mr. Jefferson quoted above, was not followed, as is only too evident from the seal itself, which was made in Philadelphia and forwarded to Virginia in 1778. The figure of Virtus resembles that of a Turk with a drawn sword in her right hand and a spear, point upward, in her left. The tyrant, bearing a resemblance to George III, seems to be struggling to rise, and the whole beauty of the classical idea is destroyed. Virtus, the calm, the unconquerable, gives place to a belligerent Amazon or Turk, with victory still in the balance.
The accompanying illustration (No. 13) [Note: illustrations nos. 12 and 13 are both labeled "12"], taken from a document in the Virginia State Library, is that of the first, or emergency, seal, engraved in Philadelphia.
In the office of the President of the University of Virginia there hangs framed a commission to John Alexander (and others) as Justices of the Peace for the County of Loudon, signed by Thos. Jefferson, dated Mar. 13, 1781, bearing a good specimen of this seal. There are other specimens on the credentials of Virginia senators on tile in the United States Senate document room.
Judging from the following extract from Zieber's Heraldry in America 1895, pages 159-160, the work on the first seal was done by Pierre Eugene de Cimitiere:
"In the office of the Honorable Henry C. Kelsey, Secretary of the State, at Trenton, is the silver seal designed by [Pierre Eugene] Du Simitiere, and with it the carefully preserved report of the 6th of September, 1776. Upon a comparison of the two it will be seen at a glance that the artist deviated from the wording of the report. From his notebook it is learned that he drew the design in India ink during October, 1776, having finished the Great Seal of Virginia in August and preparing for the artistic execution of the seals of Georgia and Delaware, which he finished in November, 1776, and January, 1777, respectively. . . . "
The date of the completion of the seal for Virginia as given in the above abstract is evidently incorrect, for we find that Mr. Page complaining of the delay in the following letter to the Speaker of the House:
*Sherwin McRae's "Report on The State Seal," p. 5.
"Palace, Oct'r. 7th, 1776
- As Mr. Wythe and myself who were appointed by the late hon'ble convention to superintend the engraving of the Seal of the Commonwealth and to take care that the same should be properly executed, finding it impracticable to procure an Engraver in this State, those who were in any manner qualified for such an undertaking being engaged in engraving Plates for the paper Money, have been under the necessity of employing proper Persons to executed this Business in Philadelphia. I have been informed by Mr. Jefferson whom I applied to, to engage Artists qualified for the work, that he employ’d such as were excellent and that the work must in great Forwardness but, that from the Nature of it, it will be sometime before it can be completed. I expect to have a particular account of the State of this Business from Mr. Wythe by the next Post. I thought it my Duty Sir, to lay this short account of the unavoidable Delay of this important Business before you that the House may take such steps to remedy the Inconvenience arising from the want of the Seal, as they may judge proper. I have the honor to be Sir,
Your Mo. Obed't. h'ble. Serv't.,John Page.
- The Speaker of the
- House of Delegates.”49
In accordance with the suggestions in the above letter the General Assembly enacted the following:
"I. WHEREAS, by an ordinance of convention, it is declared that all commissions shall run in the name of the commonwealth of Virginia, and bear teste by the Governour with the seal of the commonwealth annexed, and certain persons were directed to provide the said seal, but, from unavoidable delays, they have not been able to execute the same; and whereas, in some instances, of great and pressing necessity, the governor, with advice of the council, hath already granted commissions, the validity of which may be drawn into question, to remedy which inconveniences, it is necessary that some provision should now be made.
"II. Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly of the commonwealth of Virginia, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, That the Governour, with the advice of council, shall have full power and authority henceforth to issue commissions under his signature, without any seal, until the seal of this commonwealth shall be provided, as by the said ordinance is directed; and that all commissions heretofore granted, or which may be hereafter so granted, shall be as efficacious and valid, to all intents and purposes, as if the same had issued according to the above recited ordinance."50
In 1777, Gov. Patrick Henry appointed William Lee (brother of Richard Henry Lee and Arthur Lee) an agent of Virginia to France, to obtain arms and ammunition, or a loan of 2,000,000 livres to purchase the same. There was no seal to authenticate his credentials, and the delay in obtaining the seal ordered
49 Va. Mag. of Hist. and Biog., Vol. 17, p. 226.
50 Hening's Statutes at Large, IX, p. 211.
in Philadelphia was the source of considerable annoyance. In 1778, however, the seal was delivered, and Gov. Henry forwarded William Lee his commission under the new seal on April 10th, the receipt of which was acknowledged by Arthur Lee in a letter to Gov. Henry dated Paris, June 15, 1778.
The following is an extract from a letter from William Lee to Gov. Jefferson, dated Frankfort, Sept. 24:
"His Excellency Gov. Henry, was pleased in 1777, with the advice of the Council, to appoint me Agent to France, for the State of Virginia. and in 1778, by the same authority, he sent me a power under the State Seal, to obtain Arms, Artillery, Ammunition etc. of his most X-tian majesty, ministers, 'or any other persons to the amount of 2,000,000 of livres--or to borrow money to that amount to purchase these articles with. . . "51
This seal, which had been procured for use in this emergency, was the obverse of the great seal, and was small, being about the size of our present lesser seal. As before mentioned, it was incorrect in design and not at all in accordance with the idea as set out in the Polymetis. This small seal was of course not sufficient for permanent use, and John Page proceeded to take steps to obtain a proper great seal. When he discovered that it was impossible to have the great seal satisfactorily engraved in America, he persuaded Arthur Lee, who was then in Paris on business of state, to employ a competent engraver in Europe to do the work. Arthur Lee made a few initial inquiries and wrote John Page as follows:"Paris, May 27, 1 1778.
"The great Seal I have also enquired about. But they asked here from 100 to 150 louis d'ors for making it in steel. I have written to London to know what would be the price, as this seems exhorbitant. As soon as I am satisfied it is not so, I shall put it in hand."
Unfortunately, the incorrect design of the first seal had its bad influence, and in sending instructions to Arthur Lee a description of the former seal was given instead of a description of the design described by law. Thus the original mistakes were repeated and appeared in the seals for many years to come."Frankfort, 8 Oct. 1778.
I wrote to you the 4th and yesterday I received yours of the 1st. I forgot to mention that directions were given to Mr. Sauvage, orfevre a l'ainean blanc, quai des orfevres, pont neuf, to make his estimate for a small portable vice; as well as the Seal for the State of Virginia; but on reflection I think the vice will be unnecessary, because they must have had something of this sort to use their former seal with; therefore all that is now wanted will be the two silver pieces properly engraved to make the proper impression on each side of the wax.
This can't cost near what you talked of, nor can it be difficult to execute ... Let me know if you can have it done in Paris, if not I will have it done in Holland.
51 Calendar of Va. State Papers. Vol. I, p. 328.
Design of a Great seal for a State. On one side of the seal the impression should be Virtue, the Genius of the state, dressed as an Amazon, resting on a spear with her left hand, and holding a drawn sworn in her right hand, with Tyranny under her feet, a crown falling from his head, holding a broken chain in his left hand and a sceptre in his right hand.
In the exergue the word 'Virginia' over the head of Virtue, and below the words
'Sic Semper Tyrannis.'
On the opposite side of the seal should be Liberty holding a spear in her right hand, with a cap at the end of the spear. On one side of Liberty should be the goddess Ceres, with her horn of plenty in her left hand and an olive branch in her right hand. On the other side of Liberty should be Eternity with a globe in her left hand and a phoenix in her right.
In the exergue the words
'Deus Nobis, haec Otia Fecit.52
The reader will note the belligerent Amazon with drawn sword in right hand and spear in left, a crown falling from head of tyrant, etc. The words in italics when compared with those given in the law will show the changes.
A year later, on Oct. 4, 1779, the General Assembly passed an act authorizing the Governor to procure a great seal for the State in accordance with the resolution of the Convention of 1776, save only that the motto on the reverse be changed to "Perseverando". By this same act the first, or emergency, seal was adopted as the lesser seal.
Thus we have the seal, which was being engraved in Paris under the instructions of Arthur Lee, supposedly legalized; yet in strict accordance with this act it was not legal, because this Paris seal did not agree in the main particulars with the descriptions as given in the resolution passed by the Convention of 1776 (one of the requirements of the act). On the other hand, we find the Assembly changing the motto from "Deus Nobis Haec Otia Fecit" to "Perseverando"—the latter decidedly in keeping with the design of the "belligerent" Amazon who has only half conquered her tyrant and should persevere to the end.
It would seem from this change of motto that the constant use of the incorrect seal had had its influence on the General Assembly and that they had either never known or had lost the pure classical idea which inspired Wythe and the other members of the Committee. This is to be particularly regretted, inasmuch as though the design of the seal was corrected during the administration of Governor Cameron, the motto was not changed to correspond.
The following is the act of 1779:
"An act for providing a great seal for the commonwealth, and directing the lesser seal of the commonwealth to be affixed to all grants for land, and to commissioners, civil and military. Oct. 4, 1779 .
52 See Letters of Wm. Lee, by Ford, 1891, p. 482-3. The following appears as a toot-note on page 483: Indorsed on the original design of the great seal, the following names:
Leonard. graveur a la monle on Au Galarle du Louvre.
Lorthior, rue de Monle.
Gammot, vis-a-vis Sainte Chapelle, Cour du Palais.
Sauvage orflevre, Qual des orfevres.
"I. Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That the Governour. with the advice of the council, be empowered, and he is hereby required, to provide, at the publick charge, a great seal for the commonwealth, and to procure the same to be engraved, either in America or Europe, with the same device as was directed by the resolution of convention, in the year one thousand seven hundred and seventy six; save only that the motto on the reverse be changed to the word PERSEVERANDO.
II. And be it farther enacted, That the seal which hath been already provided by virtue of the said resolution of convention. be henceforward called the lesser seal of the commonwealth, and that the said lesser seal be affixed to you grants for lands, and to all commission, civil and military, signed by the Governour: Provided nevertheless, That all such commissions heretofore signed and issued, without affixing the seal, shall be good and valid."53
Unfortunately I have been unable to obtain a specimen of the great seal prior to 1819. This would make no difference if it were true as stated by several former writers that no new seal was made until 1856; but this statement is incorrect, and was evidently based on the fact that no act authorizing a new seal appears until that date. The fact is, however, that new seals, both great and lesser, were made in 1809. Sufficient proof of this will be found in the Governor's letter-book of Aug. 1809, on file in the Virginia State Library, from which the following letter is copied:
"John Carter to the Governor. "Richmond, Aug. 1, 1809.
"Supposing that it will be in my power to finish the reverse of the Great Seal of the Commonwealth by the 15th inst. I take the liberty to enclose the Honorable Executive a plan for a screw press. As I suppose it would be desirable with them to have the press as early as possible after the seals are completed, I would advise that it be made at the Armory, by which means it will be more expeditiously executed, and probably in a much neater manner than by Mr. Todd, who offered to undertake its execution a short time since.*
I am &c."
Some very good specimens of the lesser seal engraved by Jno. Carter will be found among the record of the United States Senate on the credentials of the senators from Virginia as follows: .
Jan. 15. 1811, credentials of Wm. B. Giles, signed by Jno. Tyler; Feb. 24, 1823, credentials of John Taylor, signed by James Pleasants.
The next two are in the Virginia State Library:
Dec. 17, 1822, on commission of William Madison as major general of the second division of the militia of the Commonwealth, signed by James Pleasants, Jr. (poor impression); June 10, 1822, on grant of land to Capt. Wm. Wash, signed by Thos. M. Randolph, Governor (good impression).
Specimens of the great seal are found on the following:
Dec. 30. 1822, credentials of Jno. Taylor, signed by James Pleasants (in the
* It seems altogether probable that the new seal here referred to was merely a reproduction of the old one, no change in the design having been made.-Ed.
53 Henings, X., p. 131-132.
United States Senate record room); Apr. 7, 1819, certificate of James Rochelle, clerk of Superior Court of Southampton Co., signed by Governor Jas. P. Preston (excellent impression in Va. State Library). (See illustration No. 14.).
For many years these seals were used, and it was not until 1856 that the steel dies had become so worn that it became necessary to make new ones. The distinguished sculptor, Alexander Galt,54 was employed to design the new seals. He used as a basis for his designs a set of drawings which were then among the State archives and which are now in the Virginia State Library. These drawings are folded in a paper wrapper upon which is the following notation: "Drawings for the Great seal of State, said to have been made by the Celebrated Benjamin West. Aug. 23, 1856." (See illustration No. 15.) With the assistance of these drawings, Galt produced a work of art which has been unsurpassed in the whole history of seal making in Virginia. The "West" drawings are notable for their simplicity and classical beauty. They are incorrect, however, in the following details: the "sword" is not sheathed and the "crown" is shown falling instead of fallen. In the reverse the figures do not conform to the description given by the Convention of 1776 and are not followed by Galt in his finished work.
A very excellent specimen of this great seal is in the Virginia State Library on a requisition on the Governor of Pennsylvania, dated Oct. 26, 1859, for John E. Cooke, charged with murder and robbery perpetrated at or near Harper's Ferry in the County of Jefferson, etc., signed by Gov. Henry A. Wise. This Cooke was one of Jno. Brown's men and participated in his raid. Another good specimen of this seal may be found in the U. S. Senate record room on the credentials of Senator R. M. T. Hunter, dated June 8, 1858, signed by Henry A. Wise. (See illustration No. 16.)
The seals designed by Galt were used continuously until the close of the War between the States. At the time of the evacuation of Richmond by the Confederate army the Secretary of the Commonwealth was instructed by the Governor to remove all of the State archives to Lynchburg. The seals and records were packed in boxes and shipped by the James River and Kanawha Canal. The canal had been cut in several places, and the boxes fell into the hands of the Federal troops. When Governor Peirpoint removed the State government from Alexandria to Richmond, the seals were sent to him and again placed in the custody of the Secretary of the Commonwealth.
Soon after the return of the seals Governor Peirpoint had new seals made—exact copies of the old, with the exception that the words "Liberty and Union" were added both to the obverse and reverse. This addition was without authority of any published ordinance of Convention, or law of the Legislature, either at Wheeling, Alexandria, or Richmond; but it is stated page 62 of the first volume of West Virginia Reports by the reporter, John Marshall Hagans, Esq., that a resolution was adopted by the Convention at Wheeling "providing for the appointment of a committee to procure a great and a lesser seal, the seals of the commonwealth being in possession of the late executive, respectively bearing, on obverse and reverse, the devices and mottoes on the seals theretofore used by the State, with the addition on each seal of the words 'liberty and union.' "
54 Code of Virginia, 1873, p. 122.
The reporter adds this remarkable paragraph: "There was a peculiar propriety in this, which excites greater interest when it is remembered that the seals of Virginia bear the device of a slave of the plebeian order, who, having broken the bonds of his servitude and obtained the ascendency over his master, stands triumphantly with his foot upon the despot's prostrate form, illustrating the motto of 'Sic Semper Tyrannis' circling around him. So, likewise, did the 'peasantry of the west' in the name of liberty and union."
The accompanying illustration (No. 17) is from a photograph of a seal from a letter to Hon. Wm. H. Seward, Secretary of State, enclosing, in accordance with his request, an impression of the great seal dated Apr. 8, 1867;, signed by J. M. Herndon, Secy. of the Commonwealth, now in the office of Librarian of the United States Department of State. Another good impression is found on the credentials of Senator Waitman T. "Willey of Va., dated July 11, 1866, signed by Francis H. Peirpoint.
There were now in the secretary's office two complete sets of seals, neither of which was properly authenticated. The General Assembly, with the idea of clarifying the situation, passed the toll owing act:
"An ACT concerning the seals of the commonwealth, defining their Use, and the oases in which the Tax upon them is to be collected.
Passed Feb. 28, 1866.
Whereas reasonable doubt exists as to the present state of the law in reference to the seals of the commonwealth, particularly as to the distinctive uses of the two seals, and whether the tax imposed upon the use of what is termed in the law 'the seal of the state', is to be charged for each, or only for the great seal; and it being desirable that the law should be definite and clear on these points: Therefore,
l. Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That the great seal and the lesser seal, now under the care of the secretary of the commonwealth, as keeper of the seal, are and shall continue to be the seals of the commonwealth.
2. The great seal shall be affixed to documents signed by the governor which are to be used before tribunals, or for purposes outside of the jurisdiction of this state; and in every such case, except where the state is a party concerned in the use to be made of the document, the tax imposed by the law on the seal of the state, shall be collected and accounted for by the secretary of the commonwealth, as keeper of the seals.
3. The lesser seal shall be affixed to all grants for lands and writs of election issued by the governor; to all letters of pardon and reprieve; to all commissions, civil and military, signed by the governor, and to all papers requiring seal, authorized to be issued by the governor for the purpose of carrying the laws into effect within this commonwealth; and also, when deemed necessary by the secretary of the commonwealth, may be used by him as an authentication of his official signature: but no tax shall hereafter be charged upon said lesser seal, except upon commissions appointing notaries public, inspectors of tobacco and other commodities, commissioners of wrecks, and commissioners in other states, or taking acknowledgments, and so forth, and upon certificates of the secretary of the commonwealth, when, at the request of the parties desiring such certificates, the seal is attached. In all such cases, the tax shall be
the same as upon the great seal, and shall be collected and accounted for in the same manner.
4. This act shall be in force from its passage."55
This law left the question of the legality of the seals in as much doubt as ever, though we find that the seals with the words "Liberty and Union" were the ones used until 1873, at which time the General Assembly passed an act authorizing the elimination of the words "Liberty and Union," but establishing by law all of the errors which had been current in one form or another since 1776. This new law changed the wording of the description as given by the Convention of 1776, that the sword of Virtus was in her right hand and the spear in her left, a crown falling, etc.
Governor Kemper had designs drawn and seals made in accordance with this description, and these designs, as shown in the accompanying illustration (No. 18), depict more clearly than words the complete distortion of the idea as promulgated by George Wythe and his fellow committeemen. Once more we have the belligerent Amazon with drawn sword ready to strike. The crown is falling, instead of fallen, and the spear appears with point upward. From an artistic standpoint, the designs of Gov. Kemper are unusually graceful and attractive.
Sherwin McRae, in his report of 1884, says that these seals of Kemper's were never used; but in this he is in error, for I find two excellent impressions of them as follows: the great seal, on paper sent Secretary of State, at his request, dated Mar. 4, 1874, signed J. L. Kemper, now in office of Librarian of U. S. State Department; the lesser seal, on credentials of Senator John 'V. Johnston,' dated Dec. 17, 1875, signed Jas. L. Kemper, now among the records of the U. S. Senate
The following is the act of 1873 mentioned above:
"1. Whereas, the seals of the commonwealth of Virginia, which were adopted in seventeen hundred and seventy-nine and used until the year eighteen hundred and sixty-five, were stolen or mislaid at the time of the evacuation of the City of Richmond in April, eighteen hundred and sixty-five; and whereas, on the restoration of the State government under Gov. Pierpoint, he caused a new seal to be engraved similar in every respect to the old, except that it contained the words 'Liberty and Union,' which said words seem to have been added to the seal without any authority of the law; and whereas the Legislature of Virginia on the twenty-eighth day of February, eighteen hundred and sixty-six, passed as act entitled an act concerning the seals of the commonwealth defining their use and the cases in which the tax upon them is to be collected: the first section of which said act is in the following words, to-wit: 'Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That the great seal and the, lesser seal now under the care of the secretary of the commonwealth, as keeper of the seals are and shall continue to be be seals of the commonwealth; and whereas, at the time of the passage of the said act, the old seal had been returned to the custody of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, and both seals were then under his care, having some doubt as to which seal the Legislature intended to adopt and legalize; and whereas, the old seal is very much worn by long usage; therefore;
55 Acts of Virginia, 1865-67, p. 193.
Be it enacted by the General Assembly that the great seal of the commonwealth shall consist of a metallic disc, two and three quarter inches in diameter, containing within an ornamented border one quarter of an inch wide, the following devices and mottoes, viz: On the obverse, Virtus, the genius of the commonwealth, dressed as an Amazon resting on a spear held in her left hand, and holding a sword in her right hand, her left foot on the figure of tyranny, represented by a man prostrate, his head to her left, a crown falling 'from his head, a broken chain in his left hand, and a scourge in his right hand. Above the group, in a line parallel with the border, the word, 'Virginia', and in the exergue, on a curved line, the motto 'Sic Semper Tyrannis.' On the reverse a group, Libertas with her wand and Pileus in her right hand. On her right, Eternitas, with the globe and phoenix in her right hand; and on the left of Libertas, Ceres, with a cornucopia in her left hand, and ears of wheat in her right. Over this device, in a curved line, the word 'Perseverando.'
2. The lesser seal of the commonwealth shall be one and nine sixteenths inches in diameter, and have engraved thereon the device and inscriptions contained in the obverse of the great seal.
3. The Governor is hereby authorized and directed to procure and cause new seals to be prepared, as hereinbefore described, to be engraved in the best manner, with a suitable press for taking impressions therefrom; and thereafter to cause the seals now under the care of the secretary of the commonwealth to be defaced, by filing two marks at right angles across the faces of the same, and the seals now being used by the secretary of the commonwealth shall continue to be used until the fourth day of July eighteen hundred and seventy three; and their use heretofore, and until the new seals are ready for use, is hereby declared to be valid.
4. The great seal shall be affixed to documents, signed by the Governor, which are to be used before tribunals, or for purposes outside of the jurisdiction of this state; and in every such case, except where the State is a party concerned in the use to be made of the document, the tax imposed by law on the seal of the state shall be collected and accounted for by the secretary of the commonwealth, as keeper of the seals.
5. The lesser seal shall be affixed to all grants for lands and writs of election issued by the Governor; to all letters of pardon and reprieve; to all commissions, civil and military, signed by the Governor; and to all other papers requiring seal authorized to be issued by the Governor for the purpose of carrying the laws into effect within this commonwealth, and also, when deemed necessary by the secretary of the commonwealth may be used by him 118 an authentication of his official signature; but no tax shall hereafter be charged upon said lesser seal, except upon commissions appointing notaries public, inspectors of tobacco and other commodities, commissioners of wrecks, and commissioners in other states for taking acknowledgments, and so forth, and upon certificates of the secretary of the commonwealth, when, at the request of the parties desiring such certificates, the seal is attached. In all such cases the tax shall be the same as upon the great seal, and shall be collected and accounted for in the same manner."56
56 Code of Virginia, 1873, pp. 122-124. Code of Virginia, 1887, Sec. 32-35. Acts of Virginia, 1872-1873. Chap. 247.
For some reason, possibly the one given by McRae, that they "proved to be incorrect and unsatisfactory" (though they conformed admirably to the law of 1873), their use was discontinued about 1876. The old seal designed by Alexander Galt was again brought into use and remained the legal seal until 1884. On February 11th, 1876, James McDonald, Secretary of the Commonwealth, wrote to Hon. Hamilton Fish, Secretary of State, enclosing in compliance with his request an impression of the great seal (Galt design). This specimen is still in the Library of the Department of State. Another specimen of this seal as used at this period is found among the archives of the U. S. Senate upon the credentials of Senator Harrison Holt Riddleberger, signed by Gov. Fred W. M. Holliday.
Gov. Holliday, who fully appreciated the importance of restoring the great seal to the significant design authorized by the Convention of 1776, employed Col. Sherwin McRae, then State Librarian, to ascertain what was the correct description. McRae made a careful, though not exhaustive, investigation of the subject, which he concluded during the administration of Gov. Wm. E. Cameron. Both Governors Holliday and Cameron lent him their support, and the latter had several of the most accomplished engravers to come to Richmond and study the standards (Spence's Polymetis, etc.) by which George Wythe and his committee had been governed when evolving the design for the great seal for Virginia. The report of Sherwin McRae was transmitted by the Governor to the General Assembly on February 25, 1884. In this report McRae states that the metallic discs, obverse and reverse, of the great seal had been received and were ready for use. He fails to give the name of the engraver.
The new seal was the first which was correct in every detail, except the motto (according to the description given by the Convention of 1776). Virtus dressed like an Amazon with the "Parazonium" in her left hand sheathed and inverted, a spear in her fight hand, point downward, touching the earth, with left foot on the tyrant. The tyrant in this seal is a reproduction of the figure used by Gov. Kemper in his design of 1873. The reverse is identical with the design of 1856.
The accompanying illustration (No. 19) is from a photograph of a seal attached to a letter addressed to the Honorable, the Secretary of State, enclosing in compliance with his request, an impression of the great seal, dated March 25, 1884, signed Gov. Wm. E. Cameron. Another example is among the U. S. Senate records, on the credentials of Senator John V. Daniel, dated December 29, 1885, signed by Gov. Wm. E. Cameron.
We now find a peculiar situation: the seal is correct in accordance with the original idea of 1776, but is wholly at variance with the law of 1873. Nor did the Legislature take any action on McRae's report towards correcting the wording in the description. This anomalous situation remained until 1903, when as a result of the efforts of D. Q. Eggleston, Secretary of the Commonwealth, the Legislature passed an act redescribing the great seal and correcting all of the errors except one. The new act uses the expression "A crown falling from his head", whereas the original description read: "A crown fallen from his head". This latter expression is in exact accord with the idea of "Victory completed" as expressed by "Fortitudo" or "Virtus". The words used in the act do not conform with this idea.
The following is the act of 1903:
"Chap. 353.—An Act to amend and re-enact section 32 of the Code of Virginia. Approved Dec. 8, 1903.
1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of Virginia, That section 32 of the Code of Virginia be amended and re-enacted 80 as to read as follows:
§ 32 The great seal.—The Great Seal of the commonwealth shall consist of a metallic disc, two and three quarter inches in diameter, containing, within an ornamental border one quarter of an inch wide, the following devices and mottoes, viz: On the obverse: Virtus, the genius of the commonwealth, dressed as an Amazon, resting on a spear held in her right hand, and holding a sword in her left hand, her left foot on the figure of tyranny, represented by a man prostrate, his bead to her left, a crown falling from his head, a broken chain in his left hand, and a scourge in his right hand. Above the group, in a line parallel with the border the word 'Virginia', and in the exergue, on a curved line, the motto, 'Sic Semper Tyrannis'. On the reverse, a group of Libertas with the wand and Pileus in her right hand; on her right, Aeternitas, with the globe and phoenix in her right hand; and on the left of Libertas, Ceres, with a cornucopia in her left hand, and ears of wheat in her right. Over this device, in a curved line, the word, 'Perseverando.'
2. This act shall be in force from its passage."57
The seal as used today (1911) is correct in all, the major details. It is lacking, however, in artistic grace and beauty. The Genius of the Commonwealth has the figure (of a man rather than that of a woman, and long after the discs were in use D. Q. Eggleston, Secretary of the Commonwealth, returned that of the obverse to the engraver and had the breasts of a woman added to the figure.
The accompanying illustration (No. 20) is from photographs made for D. Q. Eggleston in 1906. The original photographs are in the office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth.
It is sincerely to be hoped, now that the design of the seal is correct, that the contradictory motto, "Perseverando" (by persevering), will be changed to the original motto "Deus Nobis Haec Otia Fecit" (God has given us this ease).
57 Acts of Assembly, special session 1902-4, p. 570.
- Edward S. Evans, "The Seals of Virginia'" Seventh Annual Report of the Library Board of the Virginia State Library (1909-1910), 7-47.
- The four "great rivers of Virginia" would later appear on the reverse of the seal of Virginia's High Court of Chancery, ordered by Wythe.
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