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Rejected Designs for the Great Seal of the United States

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This month marks the 230th anniversary of the adoption of the Great Seal of the United States, which is most often seen on the back of the $1 bill. But if John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin had their way, the seal would look very different.

John Adams' Design

After they'd completed their work on the Declaration of Independence, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin were chosen by the Continental Congress to work as a committee and submit a seal design for approval.

We have the descriptions of each man's proposed seal from a letter John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail. Adams suggested an illustration depicting the Choice of Hercules. This Greek allegory has Hercules deciding which path to walk in life by deliberating with the female personifications of Pleasure and Virtue.

Here's how Adams described the seal:

The Hero resting on his Clubb. Virtue pointing to her rugged Mountain, on one Hand, and perswading him to ascend. Sloth, glancing at her flowery Paths of Pleasure, wantonly reclining on the Ground, displaying the Charms both of her Eloquence and Person, to seduce him into Vice.

Thomas Jefferson's Design

Jefferson was more ambitious and proposed designs for both sides of the seal.

Jefferson wanted an illustration of the Israelites' exodus out of slavery and bondage from Egypt for the front of his seal. The choice of this design adds another layer to his complicated relationship with slavery. Jefferson, at the time of his death, owned over 100 slaves; his writings, however, suggested a disdain for the institution of slavery. In his draft of the Declaration of Independence submitted to the Continental Congress, he listed one of the crimes of the King as forcing the institution of slavery on the colonies in America. In this draft he described slavery as a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred right of life and liberty.”

For the back side of the seal, Jefferson proposed an illustration of Hengist and Horsa, 5th-century Saxon warriors from Germany. They came to England as mercenaries to help the Briton tribe defend themselves against the rival tribes of the Picts and Scots. King George III also hired German mercenaries to wage war on the colonists, so this choice seems problematic.

Benjamin Franklin's Design

The illustration above is based on the committee's revision of the design Benjamin Franklin submitted for the reverse of the seal. Franklin had a similar idea to Jefferson’s and wanted to illustrate a scene from the Exodus of the Israelites. The seal would show Moses parting the Red Sea with Pharaoh and his chariots being overwhelmed by the waters with the motto: Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God. Thomas Jefferson became so enamored with this motto he incorporated it for his own personal seal design.

Franklin was not happy with the eagle that was eventually chosen, as he explained in a letter to his daughter:

For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perch’d on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish,... the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

In the first part of this letter, Franklin described the problems with a ruling aristocracy. Franklin saw the eagle as an avian aristocrat: classy-looking but unconcerned with helping the helpless.

Artistic Consultant Pierre Du Simitière's Design

One of the first actions of the Great Seal Committee was to call on an outside consultant to assist in the task. They picked artist Pierre Eugene Du Simitière, who, like the rest of this committee, was a member of the American Philosophical Society. Du Simitèire was born in Switzerland and was a painter, naturalist, and antiquarian collector. The picture above is what the committee picked for front of the seal, which was a revision of Du Simitèire’s proposal.

His use of the Eye of Providence and the motto E pluribus unum are retained as elements in the seal today. The motto E pluribus unum ("out of many, one") is put into context by Du Simitèire's design, which contains a shield with 6 symbols representing the former nations (England, Scotland, Ireland, France, the Netherlands and Germany) of the colonists. There were no plans to include a symbol for the 20% of the population that came from Africa.

The committee submitted their design to the Continental Congress on August 20, 1776, and on the same day they received a report that the proposed design was ordered "to lie on the table," which was a polite way of saying, “Thanks, but no thanks,” to the committee for their work.

Additional Designs

The Continental Congress waited more than three years to form a new committee, whose design (above) was also tabled by the Continental Congress.

A third committee was formed and created their proposal (above) for the Congress; no official action was taken on their design.

Congress eventually delegated the responsibility to Charles Thomson—Secretary of the Continental Congress for its entire 15 year existence—to create a design after giving him the work of the previous three committees. Thomson's final design, approved by the Congress in 1782, was a combination of the elements provided by all three of the committees.

And this is how it looked when the final design was first published in 1787, in The Columbian magazine.

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History
P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all-time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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