"The present age does so much justice to the unsullied reputation with which you have always conducted yourself in the execution of the duties of your office, and posterity will find your name so honorably connected with the unification of such a multitude of astonishing facts that my single suffrage would add little to the illustration of your merits. Yet I cannot withhold any just testimonial in favor of so old, so faithful, and so able a public officer, which might tend to sooth his mind in the shades of retirement. Accept, then, this serious declaration that your services have been important as your patriotism was distinguished ; and enjoy that best of all rewards, the consciousness of having done your duty well."
When President George Washington wrote these words, he had no idea how wrong he would be. For indeed, posterity has long forgotten the man who was singularly praised as the icon of integrity and truth at the formation of the aspirational embodiment of the Roman poet Virgil's Novus ordo seclorum ("new worldly order"). And during the next few weeks, we will silently pass the 230th anniversary of casting of the Great Seal of the United States in advance of its first use on September 16, 1782 paying little attention to the emblem, its artist, or the impulse which led to the audacity he attempted to inspire. That man, long lost in posterity, was Charles Thomson, the Secretary of the Continental Congress and the Doodler-In-Chief who got the job of assembling the eagle, scroll, olive branch, quiver and shield and using his command of Latin to select the pronouncements inscribed thereon.
Novus ordo seclorum - New Worldly Order
Annuit Coeptis - Favored by
On Friday, I sat in the U.S. House of Representatives' Financial Services Committee room in the
on Capitol Hill. Getting ready for the
briefing I was about to deliver on a mechanism to reintegrate productivity and
capital flows in our economy, I found myself peering long into the extinct bird
perched aloft the back wall of the room.
I wonder, I thought to myself,
how many Chairmen have been seated at the
head dais and taken a moment to inquire into the man who cast the Great Seal's
bird so long ago? Having observed
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner
sitting below said foul (yes, I didn't mistype the bird 'fowl' though my intention was dry humor) over the past few weeks, I was equally inquisitive as
to how many witnesses have sought to embody the character of a man about whom,
upon entering the room, was reportedly said, "Here comes the Truth." Rayburn Office Building
That Charles Thomson was drawn to heraldic representations may reflect influences from his Irish ancestry. It is curious that, in his first sketch, he used the chevron breast plate on an American eagle. His detail of the eagle - dexter talons fitted with the olive branch of peace and sinister talons fitted with clutch of arrows - could have been homage to his exceptionally pacific relationship to the Delaware Indians for whom he served as Secretary in many negotiations including quite acrimonious disputes with the family of William Penn. As a close confidant of fellow natural philosopher Thomas Jefferson, he was confessor to
Jefferson's recognition that slavery was a blight from
which humanity's exit would likely be a civil war.
Had it not been for a drive across the beautiful
Blue Ridge Mountains today, you would be reading a blog
post about the farcical banter about the state of the global economy and the
market's enthusiasm for the increasing Machiavellian scheme to exsanguinate the
public for the exclusive enrichment of the few.
With economic news conclusively panning to the absence of ground beneath
our cartoon-like whirling feet, our collective Wile E. Coyote's are trying to
assure us that if we don't look down, we'll defy gravity for just a few screens
more. Maybe we should have kept Charles
Thomson's clouds above the eagle's head rather than replacing them with the
constellation of 1-4-3-4-1 (or 13) stars in radiant glory. However, as I drove up the side of the
mountain heading to the east, I was at once greeted by the soaring majesty of a
great American eagle who was effortlessly rising towards the towering
thunderclouds to my south. In a moment,
I saw the sketch of Charles Thomson and you got this blog post.
I frequently discuss the infinitely orthogonal complexity we simplify with the word "value". While even my most liberal, counter-culture aunt at my family gathering unsuccessfully strained her mind around a world that doesn't require someone to 'fund' a cause - having herself become subject to the hegemony of contrived scarcity - I marvel at the reckless ignorance we have of the symbols (custom & culture; knowledge; and technology) which both define us and shape our collective destiny. E Pluribus Unum is ubiquitous in our lives. Together with the unfinished pyramid and the Eye of Providence, it is our most celebrated icon - our crowning and transcendent scorecard for success and power. And yet, like so many other sacraments, we pay homage to the artifact and have long ago deemed its creation and creator irrelevant for equal reflection.
Thomson's impulse represents some profound wisdom. He evidenced an unrelenting commitment to cross-cultural learning (including speaking the language of others: Greek, Latin, and tongues of those who dwelled in
long before the Europeans). He drew
wisdom and inspiration from across the millenia (inspired by Virgil's poetry;
translating the Greek texts New Testament and Old Testament). His commitment to integrity and public
service earned him the confidence and praise of those who aspired to his
reputation built on unquestioned honesty and accountability. He wrote a meticulous account of the
revolution and the formation of the Federal Constitution but, prior to his
death, destroyed the manuscript stating that he was unwilling to damage the
reputation of families of rising reputation whose "progenitors were proved unworthy of the friendship of good men because of their bad conduct during thewar."
As we come to the anniversary of his death - a day unmarked - and cross the anniversary of the casting of the Great Seal which now serves to remind and indict us, I trust that we reflect on those things which have cast long shadows across the heraldic crest that has been long sullied. And when we emerge from the mists of our reflection, I trust that we draw some value - some inspiration - from the man and the bold proclamations made in anticipation of what we might become. Then we may find ourselves rising together like the winged beasts that inspired heraldry (and their symbols dating from the Egyptian Horus falcon emblems to today) and form a More Perfect Union, insure Tranquility, provide for Commons defense, promote General Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.