The Great Seal of the
"God Will Vindicate"
The Great Seal of the Confederate States of America was
engraved in 1864, by the late Joseph S. Wyon, of London, England,
predecessor of Messrs J. S. and A. B. Wyon, chief engravers of Her
British Majesty's seals, etc., and reached Richmond not long before
the evacuation of the city, April 3, 1865. It was of silver, and in
diameter measured nearly four inches. At the evacuation it was
overlooked by the Confederate authorities, and subsequently fell
into the possession of the late genial and accomplished Colonel John
T. Pickett, of Washington, D.C., who, after having a number of
electrotype copies in copper, silver and gold plating made from it,
presented the original to Colonel William E. Earle, of Washington,
D.C. This last gentleman, on December 27th, 1888, formally presented
it to the State of South Carolina. The announcement of the gift
elicited from the Picayune, in its issue of January 6,
1889, the interesting report of an interview, by one of its
representatives, held with Hon. Thomas J. Semmes, of New Orleans,
Semmes said it always afforded him pleasure to converse on the
events of the war, particularly the transactions of the
Confederate Senate. He was attorney-general of Louisiana in
1861. When it became necessary to elect to the Confederate
Senate, organized under the new constitution, Mr. Semmes and
General Edward T. Sparrow were chosen senators from this State.
In drawing for terms he drew that for four years, while General
Sparrow drew that for six years. This was at Richmond, Va., in
"In speaking of his services in the Senate, Mr. Semmes
said he was appointed a member of the finance committee in
conjunction with Hon. R. M. T. Hunter, of Virginia, and Hon.
Robert Barnwell, of South Carolina and a member of the judiciary
committee, of which Hon. B. H. Hill was chairman. He was also
chairman of the joint committee on the flag and seal of the
Confederate States. He drafted, under the direction of Hon. R.
M. T. Hunter, the 'tax in kind' bill, which practically
supported the Confederacy during the last two years of the war.
"As member of the finance committee, he advocated the
sealing and calling in of the outstanding Confederate currency,
on the ground that the purchasing power of the new currency to
be issued in exchange would be greater than the total amount of
the outstanding currency in its then depreciated condition. He
made a report from the judiciary committee adverse to martial
"Upon being questioned as to the seal which he had
designed, Mr. Semmes said it was a device representing an
equestrian portrait of Washington (after the statue which
surmounts his monument in the capitol square at Richmond),
surrounded with a wreath, composed of the principal agricultural
products of the Confederacy, and having around its margin the
words: 'Confederate States of America, 22d February, 1862,' with
the motto, 'Deo vindice.'
"In the latter part of April, 1864, quite an interesting
debate was had on the adoption of the motto. The House
resolutions fixing the motto as 'Deo Duce Vincemus' being
considered, Mr. Semmes moved to substitute ' Deo vindice majores
aemulamur.' The motto had been suggested by Professor Alexander
Dimitry. Mr. Semmes thought 'Deo vindice' sufficient and
preferred it. He was finally triumphant."
In this connection it is appropriate and interesting to
reproduce the speech made by Mr. Semmes on that occasion. It was
"MR. PRESIDENT--I am instructed by the committee to move
to strike out the words "duce vincemus" in the motto and insert
in lieu thereof the words "Vindice majores aemulamur," "Under
the guidance and protection of God we endeavor to equal and even
excel our ancestors." Before discussing the proposed change in
the motto, I will submit to the Senate a few remarks as to the
device on the seal.
"The committee has been greatly exercised on this
subject, and it has been extremely difficult to come to any
satisfactory conclusion. This is a difficulty, however, incident
to the subject, and all that we have to do is to avoid what
Visconti calls 'an absurdity in bronze.'
"The equestrian statue of Washington has been selected
in deference to the current popular sentiment. The equestrian
figure impressed on our seal will be regarded by those skilled
in glyptics as to a certain extent indicative of our origin. It
is a most remarkable fact that an equestrian figure constituted
the seal of Great Britain from the time of Edward the Confessor
down to the reign of George III, except during the short
interval of the protectorate of Cromwell, when the trial of the
King was substituted for the man on horseback. Even Cromwell
retained the equestrian figure on the seal of Scotland, but he
characteristically mounted himself on the horse. In the reign of
William and Mary the seal bore the impress of the king and queen
both mounted on horseback.
"Washington has been selected as the emblem for our
shield, as a type of our ancestors, in his character of
princeps majorum. In addition to this, the equestrian
figure is consecrated in the hearts of our own people by the
local circumstance that on the gloomy and stormy 22d of
February, 1862, our permanent government was set in motion by
the inauguration of President Davis under the shadow of the
statue of Washington.
"The committee are dissatisfied with the motto on the
seal proposed by the House resolution. The motto proposed is as
follows: 'Deo Duce Vincemus'--(Under the leadership of
God we will conquer).
"The word ' duce' is too pagan in its
signification, and is degrading to God, because it reduces him
to the leader of an army; for scarcely does the word 'duce'
escape the lips before the imagination suggests 'exercitus,'
an army for a leader to command. It degrades the Christian
God to the level of pagan gods, goddesses and heroes, as is
manifest from the following quotation; 'Nil desperandum
Tenero duce.' This word duce is particularly
objectionable because of its connection with the word 'vincemus'--(we
will conquer). This connection makes God the leader of a
physical army, by means of which we will conquer, or
must conquer. If God be our leader we must conquer, or he would
not be the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, nor the
God of the Christian. This very doubt implied in the word 'vincemus'
so qualifies the omnipotence of the God who is to be our
'leader,' that it imparts a degrading signification to the word
'duce' in its relations to the attributes of the Deity.
"The word 'vincemus' is equally objectionable
because it implies that war is to be our normal state; besides,
it is in the future tense --' we will conquer.' The future is
always uncertain, and ,therefore, it implies doubt. What becomes
of our motto when we shall have conquered? The future
becomes an accomplished fact, and our motto thus loses its
"In addition to this there are only two languages in
which the words will and shall are to be found--the English and
the German--and in those they are used to qualify a positive
condition of the mind and render it uncertain; they are
repugnant to repose, quiet, absolute and positive existence.
"As to the motto proposed by us, we concur with the
House in accepting the word 'Deo'--God. We do so in conformity
to the expressed wishes of the framers of our Constitution, and
the sentiments of the people and of the army.
"The preamble of the Provisional Constitution declares
that 'We, the deputies of the sovereign and independent States
of South Carolina, etc., invoking the favor and guidance of
Almighty God, do ordain,' etc.
"In this respect both our Constitutions have deviated in
the most emphatic manner from the spirit that presided over the
construction of the Constitution of the United States,
which is silent on the subject of the Deity.
"Having discarded the word 'duce,' the committee
endeavored to select in lieu of it a word more in consonance
with the attributes of the Deity, and therefore more imposing
and significant. They think success has crowned their efforts in
the selection of the word 'vindex,' which signifies an assenter,
a defender, protector, deliverer, liberator, a mediator and a
ruler or guardian. 'Vindex' also means an avenger or punisher.
"No word appeared more grand, more expressive or
significant than this. Under God as the asserter of our rights,
the defender of our liberties, our protector against danger, our
mediator, our ruler and guardian, and, as the avenger of our
wrongs and the punisher of our crimes, we endeavor to equal or
even excel our ancestors. What word can be suggested of more
power, and so replete with sentiments and thoughts consonant
with our idea of the omnipotence and justice of God?
"At this point the committee hesitated whether it were
necessary to add anything further to the motto 'Deo Vindice.'
These words alone were sufficient and impressive, and, in the
spirit of the lapidary style of composition, were elliptical and
left much to the play of the imagination. Reflection, however,
induced us to add the words 'majores aemulamur,' because without
them there would be nothing in the motto referring to the
equestrian figure of Washington. It was thought better to insert
something elucidative or adaptive of the idea to be conveyed by
that figure. Having determined on this point, the committee
submitted to the judgment of the Senate the words ' majores
aemulamur,' as best adapted to express the ideas of 'our
ancestors.' 'Patres' was first suggested, but abandoned because
'majores' signifies ancestors absolutely, and is also more
suggestive than 'patres.' The latter is a term applied to our
immediate progenitors who may be alive, whereas ' majores'
conveys the idea of a more remote generation that has passed
"That being disposed of, the question arose as to the
proper signification of the word 'aemulamur.' Honorable
emulation is the primary signification of the word; in its
secondary sense it is true it includes the idea of improper
rivalry, or jealousy. But it is used in its primary and
honorable sense by the most approved authors.
"The secondary and improper sense of the aemulari
is excluded in the proposed motto by the relation it bears
to 'Deo vindice.' This relation excludes the idea of envy or
jealousy, because God, as the asserter of what is right,
justifies the emulation, and as a punisher of what is wrong
checks excess in case the emulation runs into improper envy or
jealousy. In adopting the equestrian figure of Washington, the
committee desires distinctly to disavow any recognition of the
embodiment of the idea of the 'cavalier.' We have no admiration
for the character of the cavalier of 1640 any more than for his
opponent, the Puritan. We turn with disgust from the violent and
licentious cavalier, and we abhor the acerb, morose and fanatic
Puritan, of whom Oliver Cromwell was the type. In speaking of
Cromwell and his character, Guizot says that ' he possessed the
faculty of lying at need with an inexhaustible and unhesitating
hardihood which struck even his enemies with surprise and
"This characteristic seems to have been transmitted to
the descendants of the pilgrims who settled in Massachusetts Bay
to enjoy the liberty of persecution. If the cavalier is to carry
us back to days earlier than the American Revolution, I prefer
to be transported in imagination to the field of Runnymede, when
the barons extorted Magna Charta from the unwilling John. But I
discard all reference to the cavalier of old, because it implies
a division of society into two orders, an idea inconsistent with
Mr. Semmes moved to amend by substituting "vindice" for
"duce," and it was agreed to.
In taking his leave, the reporter was informed by Mr.
Semmes that he did not know the seal was in existence and was
glad to learn that it had been presented to the State of South
Carolina, the first State which seceded from the Union.
Source: Southern Historical Society
Papers. Vol. XVI. Richmond, Va., January-December. 1888.