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What Is a State Seal?

By Pablo Garcia
Updated May 17, 2024
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In the US, each of the 50 states has an official state seal which serves both an emblematic and a functional purpose. The seal of a state is representative of its history, origins, and ideals. It also functions as a designation that a legal or government document has been created or sanctioned under state authority. The seals often serve as part of the letterhead of government leaders and agencies and appear on statute books, in courtrooms, and over the entrances to government buildings.

After the original 13 states declared their independence from England, each created its own state seal. Those of other states were created at the time they joined the union. Many seals are inscribed with important historical dates, such as admission to the union or the date of formally declaring independence. The state of Delaware for instance was the first state to ratify the new US Constitution, and that date is memorialized on the Great Seal of the State of Delaware.

In early American history, many states gained nicknames for their contributions to the new country. Often these nicknames are incorporated into the state seal. The State of Tennessee is known as “The Volunteer State” because of the many Tennesseans who volunteered to fight in the War of 1812. Delaware is “The First State,” because of its historical action regarding the Constitution. Members of its government are still the first to enter at important US functions such as presidential inaugurations.

Each of the US states have a state motto which captures the spirit or the character of the state or expresses its political convictions. These mottoes are also incorporated into each state’s seal. The state motto of Vermont, for example, is “Freedom and Unity.” New Hampshire’s motto declares “Don’t tread on me.” In the State of Arkansas, “Regnat Populus,” The People Rule.

Another important use of the state seal is as part of a state’s flag. Historically, the seal of a state was created prior to the adoption of its state flag. This was largely a practical consideration, as the seal was necessary to validate any government documents and to identify government buildings and officials. As the seal already contained important historical and cultural information about the state, it was logical that it serve as a centerpiece for the state flag. Almost all state flags were either designed around the state’s existing seal or incorporated most of its elements.

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Discussion Comments
By afterall — On Dec 11, 2011

When I was a kid I had to learn about the state seal and flag and what they meant. The thing is that I don't really remember now, or even remember what they look like; at this point I don't know if I could tell the Wisconsin state seal from the Washington one. I also had to learn the state capitals, which seemed more practical at the time, though I don't remember all of those, either.

By helene55 — On Dec 10, 2011

If you want to see what is important to a state, look at the seal. They usually have symbols like the state flower, tree, or animal, as well as the motto. Others will have a picture of the state's landscape, or something else that the people of that place think represents them. I like seeing how states, both currently and historically, identify themselves by looking at things like seals.

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