Suspense. Intrigue. Mystery. I love to read a good book or watch a good TV history program. Many use a symbol or group of symbols to illustrate their point. After all, they are powerful communication tools that have probably always existed.

Just stop and think for a moment about how many symbols you have seen today. Throughout the world, many symbols have instant recognition. No matter where we are, the peace symbol has meaning and stirs our emotion. We understand its meaning without explanation. We know the values and beliefs it stands for even without words.

Reverence and even passion may be elicited by symbols that express our values and beliefs. But symbols can also convey negative feelings: hate, anger, fear and insecurity. They can be used to give a sense of power, belonging, and to identify others who share the beliefs implicit in that symbol.

However, symbols can be identified with different meanings, so they must be evaluated in the context in which they are used. A motto or logo, is often used to more clearly express the meaning of the symbol or group of symbols.

Sometimes significant sets of symbols are misrepresented or skewed in their interpretation just to create a best-seller or TV program that grabs the attention of the reader or viewer. An example is the Great Seal of our country, which has had several myths and misinformation attached to it.

The Great Seal is made up of a significant set of symbols and mottoes that express the basic values and belief of our United States of America. It symbolizes who we are as a nation, how and why we came into being and what we stand for. I must admit, I was mostly unaware of this national treasure and how meaningful and complex it is.

As our developing nation fought for independence, the Continental Congress appointed a committee on July 4, 1776, to design the official emblem or a seal for the United States of America. This seal was to illustrate to the world, both then and now, the principles that were to create our new and independent nation.

If you have ever tried to come up with a logo that would truly express all that you are about -- your values, your dreams, your vision -- you know that this was no easy task.

The first committee was comprised of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

"E Pluribus Unum" was selected as the motto for the seal. This phrase would describe action "out of many, one." Franklin and Jefferson's depictions included scenes from the Old Testament and Adams' a painting of the "Judgment of Hercules." Even with the help of a prominent artist, their designs for the seal were rejected by Congress.

Two more committees tried to complete the task during the time of the Revolutionary War but no design was acceptable to Congress. In June 1782, Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, was given the responsibility to complete the design. He was able to visualize, unify and finalize the design of the seal.

By combining elements from the previous committees with images and mottoes of his own and other historical sources, a final design was completed in one week, submitted to the Continental Congress on June 20, 1782, and was officially adopted that same day. Its design has remained unchanged since. This two-sided design included only a page of explanatory notes; no drawing was submitted.

In September of that year, the first Great Seal die was cut and used to begin the peace process with England. It continues to be used as the official seal of our promise to other nations. Its two sides express the essential guiding principles our Founding Fathers knew the United States must always follow. Our struggle for independence is reflected in the design on the two sides of the seal as well as our future. Six years later, our Constitution would be written and approved.

Charles Thomson's comments on the symbolism of the design is the only official explanation offered about the meaning of the Great Seal:

"The shield is composed of thirteen stripes that represent the several states joined into one solid compact, supporting the chief which unites the whole and represents Congress. The stripes are kept closely united by the chief and the chief depends upon that union and the strength resulting from it.

"The motto E Pluribus Unum alludes to this union.

"The shield is born on the breast of an American Eagle without any other supporters to denote that the United States of America ought to rely on their own virtue.

"The olive branch and arrows denote the power of peace and war which is exclusively vested in Congress.

"The constellation of thirteen stars denotes a new state taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers.

"The pyramid signifies strength and duration.

"The Eye over it and the motto Annuit Coeptis allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favor of the American cause.

"The date 1776 underneath is that of the Declaration of Independence and the words Novus Ordo Seclorum under it signify the beginning of the new American Era, which commences from that date."

As we learn more about the Great Seal of our country, we can only marvel at the wisdom of our founding fathers in selecting this emblem that sums up what our country is about. What does this mean to us today? Thomas Jefferson said it well. "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

And a special thank-you to all our servicemen and women, past and present, who have sacrificed so much to preserve our American way of life and its essential principles that lead to peace, liberty and safety.

To learn more about the Great Seal, the State Department publishes an excellent overview in an 18-page pamphlet that is available at

Ruth Moriarity is a member of the Generations Advisory Group.