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Rejected Designs for the Great Seal of the United States

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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Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
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Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.
TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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