Department of State, Washington D.C., February 12, 2008
Remarks by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
February 12, 2008, Baltimore, MD
Madam Secretary [Condoleezza Rice], thank you for inviting me to join you here today. The National Archives has had a long and rewarding relationship with the State Department, so it is fitting that we are together to observe the 225th anniversary of the Great Seal of the United States.
The State Department acted as a "national archives" long before my agency was created in 1934 — preserving and protecting the national treasures, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Those documents and other government records resided with the State Department for many years before they eventually came to the Archives.
Although the Great Seal itself is kept here at the State Department, the National Archives holds the story of that symbol of our nation’s sovereignty. The Archives retains all the textual documents, artifacts, and art relating to the creation and redesigns of the seal since the 1770s.
We also have dies of past seals, going back to the Revolutionary period, including seals used over the years that had simply worn out. We have brought them here today for your inspection. And we will welcome the current die of the Great Seal when it is time to be replaced.
In addition, throughout Archives facilities nationwide, there are various documents upon which the seal was affixed over the years, including proclamations, credentials for ambassadors, and extradition papers.
Before being affixed to any document, the President must request and authorize that action in writing by issuing a signed warrant. The warrant then goes to the State Department, where the seal is affixed to the document. Some of the warrants in our holdings provide intriguing glimpses into history.
For example, in March 1933, upon taking office in the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Congress back into session and the banks closed for four days. He did it by proclamation, and issued warrants, or instructions, to have the Great Seal affixed to them.
Those 1933 warrants reveal a strong, confident Roosevelt, taking bold actions to pull the nation out of depression. But his last warrant, issued in April 1945 just days before his death —for a child health day— shows a weakened President, his signature smaller and his pen not always making a mark. The comparison indicates the toll on the President from governing for 12 years during depression and war. Several days later, on April 13, Harry S. Truman’s large sweeping signature orders the Great Seal to be affixed to a proclamation announcing Roosevelt’s death.
The Great Seal of the United States — with its bald eagle holding both an olive branch and arrows — has stood for this nation’s determination not just to be at peace with other nations but to serve notice that we are ready to defend our democracy if necessary.
Today, the Great Seal is a symbol of our democracy. Its guiding principles are a model for other nations to follow in their quest for freedom from tyranny in a world that values human rights and liberty.
Franklin Roosevelt captured this era in a speech in 1940, when he noted that the words on the Great Seal —novus ordo seclorum— mean "a new order of the ages."
Our era began in 1776, FDR said, when the Founding Fathers gathered in Philadelphia to declare the colonies' independence from King George III. We remain in that era as we watch democracy's triumphs and tragedies throughout the world with more people enjoying the liberties that Americans have enjoyed for centuries.
Here is a portion of President Roosevelt’s 1940 Armistice Day speech:
I, for one, do not believe that the era of democracy in human affairs can or will be snuffed out in our lifetime. I, for one, do not believe that mere force will be successful in sterilizing the seeds which had taken such firm root as a harbinger of better lives for mankind. I, for one, do not believe that the world will revert either to a modern form of ancient slavery or to controls vested in modern feudalism or modern emperors or modern dictators or modern oligarchs in these days. The very people under their iron heels will, themselves, rebel.
Again, thank you for inviting my colleagues and me to join you today to help commemorate the 225th anniversary of the Great Seal of the United States of America.