The Great Seal of the United States

and the Belcher Coat of Arms




    The shield on the Belcher Foundation seal is the Belcher coat of arms. It is comprised of seven red and gold vertical stripes capped by a broad horizontal "chief" of blue and white ("Or, three pales gules, a chief vair" as the heraldic description reads).

    This coat of arms probably looks familiar. That's because it resembles the Great Seal of the United States, and there is a reason why that is so: The U. S. Seal was probably derived from the Belcher coat of arms.

    Whereas the Belcher coat of arms contains red pales alternating with gold pales (for a total of seven), the coat of arms of the U. S. Seal ("Paly of thirteen argent and gules, a chief azure") contains red pales alternating with silver pales (for a total of thirteen). Today, white is often substituted for the silver pales, because, due to the fact that silver easily loses its color, white and silver are often used interchangeably in coats of arms. Note that the U. S. Seal also has a blue chief. Thus, in heraldic terms, the colors of the Belcher coat of arms are red, white, blue, and gold; and the colors of the Great Seal of the United States are red, white, blue, and silver.

    Before the founding of the United States--during America's Colonial era--the Belcher coat of arms was used as a gubernatorial seal by Governor Jonathan Belcher, commander of three American colonies and Founder of Princeton College (later Princeton University). Governor Belcher's acquaintance Benjamin Franklin, as well as John Adams (members of the first committee to design the Great Seal of the United States in 1776) probably were aware of Governor Belcher's coat of arms. This resemblance between the Belcher coat of arms and the Great Seal of the United States and its relation to the latter's origin has been verified and documented by U.S. historian W. H. Whitmore, who stated that the "principles" of the Belcher coat of arms and the U. S. Seal were "identical". The people of the pre-Revolutionary American colonies had the opportunity to view this seal for themselves: In 1769 (twelve years after Governor Belcher's death), the Belcher coat of arms was even printed on an official map of the Revolutionary era.

    Jonathan Belcher himself was highly knowledgeable about the subject of heraldry, and used his coat of arms as his gubernatorial seal for the purpose, of among other things, stamping his letters. He also emblazoned the seal on the coach in which he traveled, as governor of New Jersey, on trips from New Jersey to Philadelphia. It may be instructive to note that the ultimate designer of the Great Seal of the United States, William Barton (1754-1817), was a prominent Philadelphia resident, later a Pennsylvania judge, and brother to the University of Pennsylvania science professor Benjamin Smith Barton. (Coincidentally, the Smith families of neighboring New Jersey had close ties to Governor Belcher. The future prominent New Jersey Revolutionary leader, William Peartree Smith, was a good friend of the governor's, and even named his son Belcher Smith after him. For Caleb Smith's favorable comment about Governor Belcher, see the last line of The First Biography of Jonathan Belcher in the Archives section of this website.)

    Additionally, Governor Belcher's coat of arms was placed on his own bookplates and at least one of his portraits. One can still see his coat of arms on mezzotint reproductions of his portrait made when he was governor of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. And of course, he gave a carved and gilded version of his coat of arms to display in Princeton College, from which graduated many Revolutionary leaders and United States Continental Congressmen.

    In 1750-1755, during the time when Jonathan Belcher was Governor of New Jersey, a young friend and protégé of Benjamin Franklin, named Charles Thomson (1729-1824), was employed as an instructor at the Academy of Philadelphia (later to develop into the University of Pennsylvania) in neighboring Pennsylvania. Among other things, Thomson joined Franklin's new "Junto" or intellectual society, which gained Thomson entrance into the social life of Philadelphia. Thomson also sympathized with Israel Pemberton's Quaker group (the Friendly Association), formed in 1756, which sided with the common people against the "elite" proprietors, in Pennsylvania's parallel to the New Jersey land disputes. Within New Jersey, Governor Belcher, who also knew prominent intellectuals in Philadelphia, also favored the common people and the Quakers in their land disputes and frequently opposed the wealthy proprietors. (For Governor Belcher's view of the New Jersey land disputes, see the website page entitled Jonathan Belcher: Christian Governor.) Governor Belcher corresponded with Benjamin Franklin about Franklin's electrical experiments and Franklin's Academy of Philadelphia in 1751, during the time when Charles Thomson was employed as a tutor there.

    During this same time period, Governor Belcher used his coat of arms as his gubernatorial seal--for example, on official proclamations, including several dated January 29, 1751, August 10, 1751, and August 24, 1751. These proclamations were given under his "hand and Seal at Arms" (that is, his coat of arms was used as his official seal).

    New Jersey Assemblyman Stephen Crane, ancestor and namesake of the Stephen Crane (born in 1871 in Newark, New Jersey) who wrote the famous Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895), was the son of the Stephen Crane whom Governor Belcher appointed to be a county judge in New Jersey in 1751. Stephen, Sr. was a good friend of the governor's, who also made him a church trustee. Stephen, Jr. became a New Jersey leader in the American Revolution, together with William Peartree Smith (who by that time owned and lived in Governor Belcher's New Jersey Mansion), William Livingston (a close friend of both William Peartree Smith and Aaron Burr, Sr. (see The First Biography of Jonathan Belcher by Aaron Burr, Sr.)), and Elias Boudinot, who later was a member of the final (third) committee for designing the Great Seal of the United States. (William Peartree Smith and William Livingston became charter members of Benjamin Franklin's American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, whose main promoter was Charles Thomson.)

    In 1782, when the final design for the Great Seal was finally proposed by William Barton, the final product adopted by the United States Congress (the thirteen vertical stripes or "pales" with the blue chief) was created under the supervision of none other than Charles Thomson, who is often given credit as the Great Seal's co-designer.

    Thirteen pales--almost an exact doubling of the seven pales found in Governor Belcher's coat of arms--on top of which, like in the Great Seal of the United States, sat a chief with a blue background. Even in 1769, the American people could still see Belcher's gubernatorial seal on a pre-Revolutionary map.

    Interestingly, the early design proposed for the Great Seal of the United States contained the colors red, blue, gold, and silver. Gold was later dropped from the final proposal, leaving the colors red, blue, and silver. Gold is still used on some government departmental seals.

    It is obvious how symbolic the Great Seal of the United States was to the newly-formed United States government. The country consisted of thirteen colonies and a Congress to head them, which derived its power from those colonies. Therefore, the perfect symbol to represent the nation consisted of thirteen perpendicular columns to represent the thirteen original states, supporting a solid, united American government. The members of the Continental Congress, when they designed the Great Seal of the United States, were looking for a symbol for a new country. And to the many members of the Continental Congress who had attended Princeton College--and to Charles Thomson, who actually had lived during the time of Jonathan Belcher's governorship and knew Belcher's close friends, including the friend who had purchased Belcher's own house--the Belcher coat of arms probably provided an excellent template. This coat of arms had already been used as a gubernatorial seal during the Colonial era, by an American-born governor, and thus its symbolism was more American than British. Also, his coat of arms itself contained symbolism appropriate to represent the new nation: Like pillars supporting the edifice of government, the thirteen pales, representing the thirteen colonies, supported the chief, which represented the superstructure of the national or federal government. And the Belcher coat of arms already had that pattern of symbolism: A ready-made template. All that was needed was to nearly double the number of pales from seven to thirteen, change gold to silver, and have a solid blue chief instead of one that was blue and white.

    The inference is as clear as the resemblance between the Belcher coat of arms and the Great Seal of the United States.


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