Seal of the College

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The second, or "Temple" seal of the College of William & Mary, used from 1783-1929. Design attributed to George Wythe.

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.[1]

Excerpt from "Vert a Colledge," April 1976

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After 1783, the first extant document with the seal of the college is a diploma for an honorary degree given to St. George Tucker, March 6, 1790, which has an entirely different seal affixed. It has been variously referred to as the second seal, the temple seal, or the Jeffersonian seal. "Temple Seal" would seem to be the best term to use as it most clearly differentiates this seal from the other. The term "Jeffersonian" has been used rather indiscriminately in referring to this seal. It has been occasionally suggested that Thomas Jefferson, an admirer of classical architecture, was perhaps responsible for changing the seal when he was governor of Virginia in 1779 and was involved in making great changes at the college. It is logical to think that the seal was changed at the time of the Revolution, when there was great hostility toward all things English. The state seal of Virginia had been changed in 1776 and Lyon G. Tyler, writing in 1894, observed:

The Revolution was, in Virginia, a revolution not only in government, but in church, education, and sentiment generally. Monarchy in every guise became odious. The Roman Republic presented at that time the highest exemplars of virtues and heroism known to history .... Heraldry, the history of pedigrees, fell into utter disrespect.16

The facts prove that the Jeffersonian label for the college seal is not justified. The colonial seal was still used on Jefferson's honorary law degree diploma of 1783, so the assumed chronology is incorrect. That the temple seal was cut in Philadelphia in the last months of 1782 is clear from the correspondence of James Madison,17 who was a delegate from Virginia to the Confederation Congress meeting in Philadelphia. The Reverend James Madison, president of William and Mary, wrote to his cousin in Philadelphia on January 16, 1783, "As to the Seal, we shall take it very kind of you to forward it as soon as convenient. The Money shall be paid by a Bill without Delay." 18 As this was an answer to a now lost letter from Madison in

16 William and Mary Quarterly, 1st ser., III (1894), 90-91, italics added.

17 Later, fourth president of the United States.

18 The Papers of James Madison, edited by William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal et al. (University of Chicago Press, 1962- ), VI, 49.

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Philadelphia which presumably mentioned that the seal was finished, it is clear (considering the time it took a letter to travel from Philadelphia to Williamsburg) that the seal must have been executed in late 1782. It is interesting to note that Jefferson's honorary degree awarded in January of 1783 still bears the old seal, even though the new one was finished. It is probablet hat had Jeffersonb een responsiblef or the design of this new seal, the college would have waited and used it on the diploma.

The next letter dealing with the seal was again to Madison in Philadelphia, this time from Joseph Jones in Richmond, May 25, 1783: "The Seal and Letter for the President of the College is committed to the care of Mr. Wyt[he]19 who takes his departure for Williamsburg today." 20 Again, on June 4, 1783, the Reverend James Madison wrote to his namesake in Philadelphia: "I rec'd the Seal by Mr. Jones and am much obliged to you for the Trouble you have given yourself relative to it. The offer you made of having the Bill21 safely lodged with Scott the Engraver has induced me to enclose it to you."

Robert Scot was a logical choice to engrave the new seal. Born in Edinburgh in 1745, he had established residence in Fredericksburg by 1775. He engraved currency for Virginia and on May 12, 1780, was awarded £2103.8 "for his Services and expences in detectg some persons concerned in counterfietg the paper currency." "On requisition from the Executive," Scot executed an Indian medal for the State of Virginia in 1780 of which Thomas Jefferson wrote, "The workmanship was extraordinary good." On May 30, 1781, Governor Jefferson wrote requesting Scot to make another medal, "of the kind formerly made" for an Indian chief who was then visiting Jefferson. There is no evidence that this medal was made or even that the letter got to Scot. However, on May 27, Scot had advertised in a Philadelphia paper as "Late Engraver to the State of Virginia." He had moved to Philadelphia, probably in April or May 1781, and lived there for the remainder of his life. He was appointed engraver to the United States Mint in 1793 by President Washington on a recommendation from Secretary of State Jefferson.22

James Madison's papers also contain a receipt from Mr. Scot: "Philada. June 16. 1783. Recd of J. Madison an order on Messrs. Biddle & Co. for eight pounds fifteen shillings, which on being paid, should be a discharge in full

19 George Wythe, professor of law at William and Mary.

20 Papers of James Madison, VII, 153.

21 He is referring to the bill of exchange sent as payment for the seal.

22 Papers of Janes Madison, VII, 111; The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Julian P. Boyd et al. (Princeton, 1950- ), IV, 35-36; VI, 43; George B. Cutten, The Silversmiths of Virginia, Together with Watchmakers and Jewelers, from 1694 to 1850 (Richmond, 1952), p. 41.

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of the sum due for a seal by me engraved for the University at Williamisburg. Rot. Scot."

23 There is certainly no doubt that by June 4, 1783, the new seal was in Williamsburg and that by June 16 the financial matters were settled.

This new seal was quite different from the colonial seal. The ornate English Renaissance pile24 of the colonial seal was replaced by a Roman temple. The temple, a rather simple building with three steps and four large columns, appears to be of two stories, as there are clearly two levels of windows. The roof is of a simple style, with a pediment pierced by a circular window, and the cornice and peak of the roof are tipped by finials in the shape of urns. Above the building, a full sun inscribed with a human face,25 emanates many long rays. Up to this point the seal could still conform to the blazon, for the exact appearance of a "Colledge or Edifice" was never specified. However, the new seal departs entirely from the old one and from the blazon as well in the depiction of a phoenix rising from the flame below the steps of the temple and in the inscription on the temple itself. On the frieze is written: "TEMP. MINERVAE." (the temple of Minerva, the Roman goddess of Wisdom); on the steps, reading from top to bottom, is written: "LOGIC," "GEOM." (geometry), "GRAM." (grammar); and finally, on the columns, there are letters which are almost indecipherable. The extreme left column bears the letters, "ARS MED." (medical arts);26 the next column is inscribed, "NAT. PH." (natural philosophy); the third is inscribed, "MOR. PH." (moral philosophy); and the inscription of the extreme right column is "JURISP." (jurisprudence). The legend on the outer border of the colonial seal begins at the top and reads, clockwise, "SIG:COLLEGII: R.s ET: R.Z GULIELMI: ET: MARIAE: IN VIRGINIA" (Seal of the College of King and Queen William and Mary in Virginia). On the temple seal this has been changed to "SIG. COLLEGII GULIELMI ET MARIAE IN VIRGINIA" (Seal of the College of William and Mary in Virginia)27 with the legend starting at the bottom of the seal.

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

23 Papers of James Madison, VII, 153, italics added.

24 There appear to be several closely connected buildings in the original arms; the front facade, representing one building, seems to be joined to the towers and dome behind it. See Plate I.

25 The colonial seal had a part of a three-quarter sun, also with a face and shorter rays.

26 A medical school was established under the college reorganization of 1779 and continued until 1785. 27 The royal titles have been conspicuously removed.

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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.2 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.

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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 wigh you would propose it; for though I had something to do in designing them, I do not like them."3 0 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." 8 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.

There is no known evidence to indicate by whose authority the seal was changed in 1783 or exactly when the new seal was first put to use. Many records from that period of the college have been destroyed or lost, and a check of both of the Virginia Gazettes from November of 1782 until July of 1783 failed to produce any mention of the change of the seal. Furthermore, that the entire matter was carried out with minimal notice is well attested by the confusion caused when the new seal was first presented to Governor Benjamin Harrison in early 1784.

It is known that the seal was in Williamsburg by June 4, 1783. It is also known both that the decision to make a new seal was obviously made by December of 1782 (if not earlier) and that in 1783 the College of William

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.

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and Mary was the only institution in Virginia authorized to grant a surveyor's license.33 However, Governor Harrison, on January 27, 1784, wrote to the Reverend James Madison and other professors of the University of William and Mary:


A Mr. Morris produced to me a recommendation from your society for the appointment of Surveyor of the Counties of James City and New Kent. The signatures of the names appeared to be the handwriting of each of the gentlemen but the seal was not that of the College . . .34 you will please forward a new one [recommendation] with the proper seal35 to it and he shall be countersigned and I beg the favor of you in future to use, no other than the proper seal35 which will affectually prevent any being imposed on. B. HARRISON36

This letter makes clear not only that in the twelve or more months since the decision to change the seal was made and in the six months since the new seal's arrival in Williamsburg, the governor had not been informed of the change, but also that, at that time, the importance of a seal in authenticating documents was very great. The governor's letter makes this latter point quite forcefully. Regrettably, the Reverend Mr. Madison's reply is no longer extant.

The temple seal was used without change or further question concerning its authenticity until about 1922.37

33 Which makes the seal used to authenticate those documents of more than casual importance.

34 Italics added. This is the first record of the new seal being used. The document to which it was affixed is no longer extant.

35 He is referring to the old colonial seal with which he would have been familiar.

36 Executive Letterbook, 1783-1786, p. 246a, Virginia State Library.

37 Although there were two fires at the college during the nineteenth century, the seal was mentioned as being saved from each. The college was also closed during the War between the States and then later from 1881 to 1888; however, all available records indicate the seal was safe and undamaged when the college resumed operation in August of 1888.

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.