Yes, we have heard the glory of the Founding Fathers, how the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, but this coming Sunday also marks the 234th anniversary of our birthright as Americans: the plodding bureaucracy that almost gave the United States a cool, medieval-themed emblem.
On that first Fourth of July, Congress handled a fair amount of business, but before they adjourned for potato salad and horseshoes, their penultimate motion was this:
Resolved, that Dr. Franklin, Mr. J. Adams and Mr. Jefferson, be a committee, to bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America.
I’m no fan of group work, but that’s a committee I wish I’d seen. Franklin, for his part, offered a grand biblical vision:
Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity. Motto, Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.
Adams was gung-ho on an allegorical painting that depicted
a succession of appeals to the young Hercules, by female impersonations of Virtue and Vice or Sensuality . . . . Vice speaks first and points out the flowery path of self-indulgence; Virtue follows and adjures Hercules to ascend the rugged, uphill way of duty to others and honor to himself.
Jefferson, meanwhile, was chasing forest murmurs of his own. As Allen J. Frantzen explains in Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition, Jefferson proposed an embryonic vision of Manifest Destiny, complete with a rarity in American allegory: Germanic barbarians. “On one side,” says Frantzen,
he wanted to picture the mythical Anglo-Saxon warriors, Hengst and Horsa; on the other, he wanted to portray the Chosen People following a pillar of fire. Jefferson saw Hengst and Horsa as ideal leaders of a free and democratic people who were, at least in Jefferson’s imagination, “chosen” to live in a free world of individual rights and communal blessings. The English Constitution and Common Law were Saxon “legacies” for Jefferson, a time of wide-spread liberties for freedom-loving Anglo-Saxons, a pre-Christian Paradise destroyed by Norman-led feudalism and restored by the Magna Carta.
Jefferson’s take on the Anglo-Saxons wasn’t unusual for the time. In the 16th century, Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, busily promoted the notion that England’s break from Rome marked the restoration of a pure and primitive church. In the late 16th and 17th centuries, parliamentarians were so awed by the venerability of English legal and political institutions that they hailed the Anglo-Saxons as a nation of freedom-loving democrats: elected kings! assemblies! jury trials! common law! For centuries, English churchmen and monarchs and politicians squinted, wallowed in wishful thinking, and selectively saw themselves in the Anglo-Saxons—thus giving Jefferson a myth on which to help found America.
After establishing the study of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Virginia, Jefferson further hoped to stabilize a young nation by rooting Old English in the national elementary school curriculum. Looking ahead, he proposed ways to make Old English spelling more comprehensible to the statesmen and humanists charged with propagating Anglo-Saxon institutions in America. “As the histories and laws left us in that type and dialect, must be the text books of the reading of the learners,” he wrote, “they will imbibe with the language their free principles of government.”
In the end, fourteen people on three committees spent six years working out a design for the Great Seal of the United States; only the Eye of Providence, “1776” in Roman numerals, and the motto E Pluribus Unum survived those initial Franklin-Jefferson-Adams brainstorming sessions. Horsa and Hengist failed to stake their claim, and Thomas Jefferson failed to found an America where surveyors measure farmland in “hundreds” and Old English leaps from the tongues of country lawyers.
Had Jefferson been a more persistent medievalist, Americans might still have spent this weekend grilling meat and blowing stuff up, but we might also have swelled with pride to celebrate the founding of niw rice, geacnod on freodome and gegiefen to þæm geþohte, þæt ealle menn beoð gelice gesceapen—without having to turn to graduate students to tell us what that means.