|The truth behind the
'Masonic' symbolism on the US $1...
be cautious about many well-known “facts.” George Washington
chopped down a cherry tree when a boy and confessed the deed to
his father. Abner Doubleday invented the game of baseball.
Freemasons inserted some of their emblems (chief among them the
eye in the pyramid) into the reverse of the Great Seal of the
United States. These historical “facts” are widely popular,
commonly accepted, and equally false.
The eye in the pyramid (emblazoned on the dollar bill, no less)
is often cited as “evidence” that sinister conspiracies abound
which will impose a “New World Order” on an unsuspecting
populace. Depending on whom you hear it from, the Masons are
planning the takeover themselves, or are working in concert with
European bankers, or are leading (or perhaps being led by) the
Illuminati (whoever they are).
The notion of a world-wide Masonic conspiracy would be
laughable, if it weren’t being repeated with such earnest
gullibility by conspiracists like Pat Robertson. Sadly, Masons
are sometimes counted among the gullible who repeat the tall
tale of the eye in the pyramid, often with a touch of pride.
They may be guilty of nothing worse than innocently puffing the
importance of their fraternity (as well as themselves), but
they’re guilty nonetheless.
The time has come to state the truth plainly and simply. The
Great Seal of the United States is not a Masonic emblem, nor
does it contain hidden Masonic symbols. The
details are there for anyone to check, who’s willing to rely on
historical fact rather than hysterical fiction.
Benjamin Franklin was the only Mason on the first design
committee, and his suggestions had no Masonic content.
None of the final designers of the seal were
Masons. The interpretation of the eye on the seal is subtly
different from the interpretation used by Masons.
The eye in the pyramid is not nor has been a
Masonic symbol. The
Day, 1776 a committee was created to design a seal for the new
American nation. The committee’s members were Benjamin Franklin,
Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, with Pierre Du Simitière as
artist and consultant.
Of the four men involved, only Benjamin Franklin was a Mason,
and he contributed nothing of a Masonic nature to the
committee’s proposed design for a seal. Du Simitière, the
committee’s consultant and a non-Mason, contributed several
major design features that made their way into the ultimate
design of the seal: “the shield, E Pluribus Unum, MDCCLXXVI, and
the eye of providence in a triangle.”
The eye of providence on the seal
thus can be traced not to the Masons, but to a non-Mason
consultant to the committee. “The single eye was a
well-established artistic convention for an ‘omniscient
Ubiquitous Deity’ in the medallic art of the Renaisance. Du
Simitière, who suggested using the symbol, collected art books
and was familiar with the artistic and ornamental devices used
in Renaissance art.” This was the same cultural iconography that
eventually led Masons to add the all-seeing eye to their
The Second and Third Committees,
Congress declined the first
committee’s suggestions as well as those of its 1780 committee.
Francis Hopkinson, consultant to the second committee, had
several lasting ideas that eventually made it into the seal:
“white and red stripes within a blue background for the shield,
a radiant constellation of thirteen stars, and an olive branch.”
Hopkinson’s greatest contribution to the current seal came from
his layout of a 1778 50-dollar colonial note in which he used an
unfinished pyramid in the design. The third and last seal
committee of 1782 produced a design that finally satisfied
Congress. Charles Thomson, Secretary of Congress, and William
Barton, artist and consultant, borrowed from earlier designs and
sketched what at length became the United States seal.
The misinterpretation of the seal as a Masonic emblem may have
been first introduced a century later in 1884. Harvard Professor
Eliot Norton wrote that the reverse was practically incapable of
effective treatment; it can hardly, (however artistically
treated by the designer,) look otherwise than as a dull emblem
of a Masonic fraternity.”
Interpreting the Symbol,
The “Remarks and Explanations” of
Thomson and Barton are the only explanation of the symbols’
meaning. Despite what anti-Masons may believe, there’s no reason
to doubt the interpretation accepted by the Congress. “The
Pyramid signified Strength and Duration: The Eye over it & the
Motto allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in
favor of the American cause.”
The committees and consultants who designed
the Great Seal of the United States contained only one Mason,
Benjamin Franklin. The only possibly Masonic design element
among the very many on the seal is the eye of providence, and
the interpretation of it by the designers is different from that
used by Masons. The eye on the seal represents an active
intervention of God in the affairs of men, while the Masonic
symbol stands for a passive awareness by God of the activities
The first “official” use and definition of the all-seeing eye as
a Masonic symbol seems to have come in 1797 with The
Freemason’s Monitor of Thomas Smith Webb—14 years after
Congress adopted the design for the seal. Here’s how Webb
explains the symbol. And although our thoughts, words and
actions, may be hidden from the eyes of man, yet that
All-Seeing Eye, whom the Sun, Moon and
Stars obey, and under whose watchful care even comets
perform their stupendous revolutions, pervades the inmost
recesses of the human heart, and will reward us according to our
Eye in the Pyramid
Besides the subtly different
interpretations of the symbol, it is notable that Webb did not
describe the eye as being in a triangle. Jeremy Ladd Cross
published The True Masonic Chart or Hieroglyphic Monitor
in 1819, essentially an illustrated version of Webb’s
Monitor. In this first “official” depiction of Webb’s
symbol, Cross had illustrator Amos Doolittle depict the eye
surrounded by a semi-circular glory.
The all-seeing eye thus appears to be a
rather recent addition to Masonic symbolism. It is not found in
any of the gothic constitutions, written from about 1390 to
1730. The eye—sometimes in a triangle, sometimes in clouds, but
nearly always surrounded by a glory—was a popular Masonic
decorative device in the latter half of the 18th century. Its
use as a design element seems to have been an artistic
representation of the omniscience of God, rather than some
generally accepted Masonic symbol. Its meaning in all cases,
however, was that commonly given it by society at large—a
reminder of the constant presence of God.
For example, in 1614 the frontis piece of The History of the
World by Walter Raleigh showed an eye in a cloud labeled
“Providentia” overlooking a globe. It has not been suggested
that Raleigh’s History is a Masonic document, despite
the use of the all-seeing eye.
The eye of Providence was part of the common cultural
iconography of the 17th and 18th centuries. When placed in a
triangle, the eye went beyond a general representation of God to
a strongly Trinitarian statement. It was during this period that
Masonic ritual and symbolism evolved, and it is not surprising
that many symbols common to and understood by the general
society made their way into Masonic ceremonies.
Masons may have preferred the triangle because of the frequent
use of the number 3 in their ceremonies: three degrees,
three original grand masters, three principal officers, and so
on. Eventually the all-seeing eye came to be used officially by
Masons as a symbol for God, but this happened towards the end of
the eighteenth century, after congress had adopted the seal.
A pyramid, whether incomplete or finished, however, has never
been a Masonic symbol. It has no generally accepted symbolic
meaning, except perhaps permanence or mystery. The combining of
the eye of providence overlooking an unfinished pyramid is a
uniquely American, not Masonic, icon, and must be interpreted as
its designers intended. It has no Masonic context.
It’s hard to know
what leads some to see Masonic conspiracies behind world events,
but once that hypothesis is accepted, any jot and title can be
misinterpreted as “evidence.” The Great Seal of the United
States is a classic example of such a misinterpretation, and
some Masons are as guilty of the exaggeration as many
The Great Seal and Masonic symbolism grew out of the same
cultural milieu. While the all-seeing eye had been popularized
in Masonic designs of the late eighteenth century, it did not
achieve any sort of official recognition until Webb’s 1797
Monitor. Whatever status the symbol may have had during the
design of the Great Seal, it was not adopted or approved or
endorsed by any Grand Lodge. The seal’s Eye of Providence and
the Mason’s All-Seeing Eye each express Divine Omnipotence, but
they are parallel uses of a shared icon, not a single symbol. Note.
This essay first appeared in
The Short Bulletin for
September 1995, published by the Masonic Service Association of
North America, Silver Spring, Maryland.