Jefferson on First Committee to Design the Great Seal
In addition to his role on the committee for the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the Second Continental Congress also appointed Thomas Jefferson to a committee with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin to design the Great Seal of the United States. Within about 6 weeks, they submitted their suggestions which were rejected. It would take several more committees and six years before the final version of the seal was adopted.
Adam suggested a theme that featured Hercules, and Franklin suggested the biblical scene of Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea. Jefferson proposed on the reverse side of Franklin’s suggestion the figures of Hengist and Horsa.
According to legend, after the Romans left England, these two brothers brought their Saxon warriors to England to help the Britons subdue the Picts and the Scots. From this time until the Norman conquest, the Germanic tribes of Angles and Saxons migrated to England. Jefferson believed that the foundation of law in the United States came from this period and not from the legal systems instituted after the Norman conquest.
Jefferson argued in A Summary View of the Rights of British America, that the British American legal system was grounded in Saxon Law, not the feudalism established by the Normans. Under Saxon law, the settlers of the American continent were subjects of the crown by consent only, and the king did not hold title to the land. Jefferson apparently never deviated from this belief, although Merrill Peterson would refer to it as a “Saxon myth,”
The committee’s suggestions were tabled and the final version of the great seal was not adopted until 1782, with the bald Eagle holding the olive branch of peace in the right-hand, but thirteen arrows of war in the left. Hercules, Moses, Hengist and Horsa did not make it on the seal, but the motto "E Pluribus Unum"; the date MDCCLXXVI; and Providence's eye within a triangle did survive from the Jefferson committee.