"The Seal of Virginia"

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The Great Seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia (obverse). Illustration from Lyon G. Tyler's "The Seal of Virginia" (1894), p. 94.

Lyon G. Tyler, "The Seal of Virginia," William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Papers, 3, no. 2 (Oct. 1894), 90-96.[1]

Excerpt, October 1894

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The Revolution was, in Virginia,2 a revolution not only in govern-

2 The independent life of the Virginians—of even the poorest—made every one equal. It can be demonstrated that the Republicanism of Virginia, even in early Colonial days, was perhaps greater than that prevailing in any other colony. Aristocracy was a mere skim. It is only in this way that one can explain the absence of Tories, and why Virginia became the seat of the Jeffersonian Republican party. After the Revolution, most of the other colonies still clung to the old ways of thought, and even the seal of the United States was established on old heraldic principles. See "Seal of United States," by Gaillard Hunt, 1892.

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ment, but in church, education, and sentiment generally. Monarchy in every guise became odious. The Roman Republic presented at that time the highest exemplars of virtue and heroism known to history, and Virginia, who had fewer Tories in her borders than any other of the thirteen States, modelled herself upon the mistress of the classic world. Heraldry, the history of pedigrees, fell into utter disrepute, and individual merit was the solitary test. The adoption of a seal for the Commonwealth was the last act of the Convention of 1776. The committee appointed to prepare a seal consisted of Richard Henry Lee, who was, however, not in the Convention, George Mason, Robert Carter Nicholas, and George Wythe. In Girardin's continuation of Burk'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 to all such matters, there can be no reason to doubt the fact. George Wythe and John Page were appointed to superintend the engraving of the seal. In the absence of Lee, Mason, as next on the committee, had reported the seal to the Convention, but Wythe was entrusted with its execution, and must have penned the words that describe the seal, which have been admired for clearness and precision.1 "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 group, 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." In October, 1776, the General Assembly authorized the Governor, with advice of council, to issue commissions, under his signature, until the seal of the Commonwealth should be provided.2 On April 9, 1778, William Lee was appointed3 Virginia's agent in France to borrow 2,000,000 livres, and a seal hastily prepared, according to the resolutions of the Convention of 1776, was used

1 Journal of Convention, 1776. Rowland's "George Mason," Vol. I., pp. 264, 266.

2 Hening's Stats., Vol. IX., p. 211.

3 Council Journal, MS.

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to authenticate his credentials. In October, 1779, the General Assembly named this inartistic seal "the lesser seal" of the Commonwealth, to be affixed to all grants for land, and to all commissions, civil and military.1 At the same time they authorized the Governor, with advice of council, " to provide, at the public 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 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. The great seal thus authorized was prepared with the highest artistic skill in Paris, under the supervision of William and Dr. Arthur Lee, and was delivered to Dr. Lee on or before September 4, 1779.2 According to the preamble of the act approved March 27, 1873, both the original dies of the great and lesser seals were in existence down to the evacuation of Richmond in 1865,3 but were then "stolen or mislaid." Governor Pierpont, in 1866, 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 were added to the seal without any authority of law. In 1866 an old seal4 was returned to the custody of the Secretary of

1 Hening's Stats., Vol. X. The figure of Virtus, which, according to classic thought, is significant of majesty in repose, is curiously distorted in the impressions I have seen of this seal. Her head is bent downward, her arm half-way extended, and her right hand grasps the sword as if about to strike the tyrant writhing below.

2 Sherwin McRae's Report. In the " Letters of William Lee, " by Worthington C. Ford, William Lee writes to his brother, Dr. Arthur Lee, that he had consulted in Frankfort about the seal Mr. Sauvage, orfévre a l’ainean blanc, quai des orfévres, pont neuf.

3 Col. Sherwin McRae states, however, that George Wythe Munford, so long and so favorably known as Secretary of the Commonwealth, testified that the original great seal was in use until the year 1856, when, being worn out, it was substituted by a new seal, exactly similar. But I have found no act of the Legislature making a new seal at this time.

4 The following letter, which enclosed an impression in wax of the lesser seal of the Commonwealth, shows that the seal returned in 1866 was the old great seal: "1720 CONNECTICUT AVENUE, "WASHINGTON, VA., February 26, 1892. His Excellency the Governor of Virginia." DEAR SIR: At the time of occupation of the United States Army of Richmond, Va., I had the honor to be an aid on the staff of Major-General Godfrey Weitzel|, and, serving as such, became possessed of the seal of your State,

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the Commonwealth, as keeper of the seals, and the Legislature having in a subsequent act enacted that " the great seal and lesser seal shall continue to be the seals of the Commonwealth," some doubt arose as to which seal that body intended to legalize. The act of March 27, 1873, directed the Governor to have new seals to be prepared, and defined their size and use. Governor James L. Kemper obeyed the order, but the new seals proved to be incorrect and unsatisfactory, and therefore were never used. Governor William E. Cameron requested Col. Sherwin McRae, the State Librarian, to superintend the construction of new seals, and at length, in 1884, he reported that the metallic dies, obverse and reverse, had arrived; and in a long and somewhat confused statement, he explained the history of the seals from the time of the Convention of 1776 down. He explained that the greatest care had been taken to conform the various figures on the reverse and obverse to the most exact classic standard.1 By the law of 1873 the great and lesser seals have the same devices and inscriptions. The one is two and three-quarter inches in diameter, having an ornamental border one-quarter of an inch wide. The other is one and nine-sixteenth inches in diameter. The great seal is affixed to documents to be used before tribunals or for purposes outside the jurisdiction of the State.

which I desire to turn over to you at such time and manner as you may see fit. Although originally in my hands, it has only lately been in my power to place it at the disposal of your State. "I have the honor to be your obedient servant, (Signed) "JOHNSTON L. DE PEYSTER. [A slip enclosed with an impression on wax :] "This is an impression of the seal I took from the Impression of room of the Governor of Virginia the week of April Lesser Seal. 4th, 1865." Brevet Lieut.-Col. U. S. Vols., "Aid to Maj.—Gen. Weitzel." "The above is a correct copy of the letter (and enclosure) now in the Governor's Office, written to the Governor of Virginia, of February 26, 1892, by Johnston L. de Peyster. "S. BRANCH McKINNEY, JR., "Acting Secretary to Governor O'Ferrall." The Governor (P. IV. McKinney) replied, expressing his pleasure to have the seal, but the seal has not been received.

1 Report of Col. Sherwin McRae on State seal, House Journal, 1883-84. Doc. No. 11.

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The Great Seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia, obverse (left) and reverse (right). Illustration from Lyon G. Tyler's "The Seal of Virginia" (1894), p. 94.

The lesser seal is affixed to all grants for land, 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 as an authentication of his official signature. The large pendent wax seal has seldom been used in the Commonwealth since the Revolution, but the impression is made upon a red wax wafer attached by mucilage to the document. It is claimed by Col. Sherwin McRae that no other American State has a seal equal to that of Virginia in classic beauty and appropriateness. "The seal of a State," he observes, "is not a bauble, but an important and necessary element of government; indeed, the Convention of 1776 was so impressed with this truth that the seal was made a specific constitutional provision." The following entries are from official sources:

February 15, 1684.—King James 2d signifies his accession to the throne, and orders the old seal to be used until further orders. Ancient Records, Virginia Historical Society.

April 25, 1684.—The Council desires the King to accept of the Lives and fortunes of his Subjects here, for the inestimable Honour of a Glorious Seal sent hither. Ibid.

February 27, 1688.—They order the Old Seal, which was Small, to be used until Parchment and wax can be provided for the new one. Ibid.

King William, by his letter dated 21 February, 1688, commands the old seal to be made use of till he should order another. Ibid.

June 16, 1714.—Her Majesty having sent in a new seal for the colony, together with her Royal warrant for using the same, the former seal was, persuant to her Majesties order, broke in council. Council Journal, Va., MSS.

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October 8, 1717.—The King's warrant to Alexander Spotswood, his Maj. Lieut. Gov. of Virginia, authorizing him to affix the (new) seal to all Patents and Grants of Land, and all public Acts and Instruments of Government made and passed in his Maj. name, which seal is engraven on the one side with our Royal Effigies and an Indian on his knees presenting tobacco unto us, this inscription being under our said effigies, En dat Virginia quartam, and this other inscription round the circumference, Sigillum Provenciae de Virginia in America; on the other side of said seal Our arms, garter, Crown, supporters and Motto, with our titles round the circumference.—Sainsbury MSS.

January 9, 1717.—His Majesty having been pleased to send in a new seal for this Colony, together with a warrant for the Governor's using the same, the said warrant is ordered to be entered in the Council office, and pursuant to his Majesties command the old seal was this day broke in Council.—Council Journal Va. MSS.

August 26, 1729. Whitehall. Journal of the Board of Trade and Plant. An order of Council of 18th inst. was read, requiring this Board to prepare Draughts of Warrants to be sent with the new seals for Barbadoes, Jamaica, Virginia and Carolina, for empowering the Governors or Commanders in Chief of those Colonies to use the said seals, and directions given for preparing the Draughts of Warrants accordingly.—Sainsbury MSS.

A warrant under his Majesties Royal Sign Manual, bearing date the 6th of October, 1729, was read at the Board, empowering the Governor to use a new seal, sent him by his Majesty for this Colony, and directing that the old seal be returned, in order to be defeated in his Majesties p'sence in his privy Council, and thereupon the Govern' del'd the new Seal to be kept as usual in the Secretaries Office & the old seal was delivered up to the Governor in Order to be returned pursuant to his Majesties pleasure.—Council Journal of Va., MSS., 15th April, 1730.

[It is proper to say that I have not been able to find any direct authority for the use of the crown-shaped seal. It seems to have been suggested by Spotswood; and there are abundant instances of its use.]

SOURCES FROM WHICH THE ABOVE PAPER WAS COMPILED. Original MSS. in my possession; Hening's Statutes; York County Records, Yorktown, Va.; Burke's General Armory; Virginia Historical Collections, Vol. VII., Part I., 152; Brown's Genesis of the United States; Narrative and Critical History of America; Neill's Virginia Vetusta; Neill's London Company; Land Office Records, Richmond, Va,; Ludwell MSS., Virginia Historical Society; MSS. framed in the Virginia Historical Society; MSS. framed in the State Library; MSS. in the possession of Mrs. Charles M. Wallace (née Clopton), Richmond, Va.; Meade's "Old Churches," etc., II. 147; William and Mary College Quarterly, Vol. I.; Smith's History of Virginia, editions of 1624 and 1632; Beverley's History of Virginia (frontispiece); Stow's Survey of London, 1633; Spencer's [sic] Fairy Queen; Calendar of State Papers, 1652-1781, arranged and edited by William P. Palmer, M. D.; Virginia Gazette, 1775, etc., by Alexander Purdie; Virginia Gazette, by Dixon & Hunter; Spotswood's Letters; Burk's History of Virginia, Vol. IV., Appendix; Journal of the Convention of 1776; Rowland's "Life of George Mason," Vol. I., 264-266; Letters of William Lee, by Worthington C. Ford; Report of Colonel

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Sherwin McRae on State Seal, House Journal and Documents, 1883-84, Document No. 11; The Seal of the United States, by Gaillard Hunt; Richmond Dispatch; New England Historical and Gen. Register, Vol. XXXVII., p. 86; American Historical Record, Vol. V., No. 4; Sainsbury's MSS.; Council Journal MISS.; Ancient Records in Virginia Historical Society.

See also


  1. Lyon G. Tyler, "The Seal of Virginia," William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Papers, 3, no. 2 (Oct. 1894), 90-96.

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