North Carolina developed four different state seals during the colonial period and there have been six state seals since North Carolina declared its independence. While the Great Seal changed many times throughout North Carolina history, some variations on symbols have remained and appear on the current Great Seal.
The two most recent changes to the Great Seal, the standardization in 1971 and an addition in 1983, produced what is currently recognized as the Great Seal of the State of North Carolina. Prior to 1971, the many changes to the state seal left the Department of History and Archives uncertain of what the official seal should look like. For instance, the ship that appears in the Great Seal today had largely disappeared from most seals in the 1900s, although some seals kept the image. When the Department of History and Archives asked the Attorney General to clarify what image should be used, he deferred to the General Assembly. To clarify what the Great Seal of North Carolina should look like, the General Assembly passed the following resolution in 1971 to standardize the seal:
“The Governor shall procure of the State a Seal, which shall be called the great seal of the State of North Carolina, and shall be two and one-quarter inches in diameter, and its design shall be a representation of the figures of Liberty and Plenty, looking toward each other, but not more than half-fronting each other and other-wise disposed as follows: Liberty, the first figure, standing, her pole with cap on it in her left hand and a scroll with the word “Constitution” inscribed thereon in her right hand. Plenty, the second figure, sitting down, her right arm half extended toward Liberty, three heads of grain in her right hand, and in her left, the small end of her horn, the mouth of which is resting at her feet, and the contents of the horn rolling out.”
The Great Seal of the State of North Carolina is full of symbolism. Liberty, who appears on the left, is modeled after the Greek goddess Athena or the Roman goddess Minerva, both of whom represented liberty in their respective civilizations. The cap that Liberty holds in her hand is known as a “liberty cap,” a symbol meaning freedom from bondage that evolved from the Phrygian cap or the Pileus, a cap worn by freed slaves in the Roman Empire. The liberty cap became a symbol of freedom during revolutionary America and France. It is also significant that Liberty is holding the scroll with the word “Constitution;” it suggests that the Constitution protects Liberty. Liberty and Plenty both made their first appearances on the state seal during the colonial period. Plenty is depicted in the Great Seal holding an overflowing cornucopia, which traditionally signifies food and abundance. In the late 1700s there was much discussion as to the specific agricultural items to be depicted in the Great Seal—wheat to represent farms in western areas, Indian corn to represent Roanoke Island and the northern areas, and pitch tar and turpentine to represent commerce in the southern part of the state—but many items were removed for they were too difficult to see in the small seal. In 1793, Richard Dobbs Spaight suggested in a letter that a ship should be inserted in the seal because it was the “sublime emblem of commerce” to solve the problem of overcrowding on the Seal.
The date below Liberty and Plenty, “April 12, 1776,” represents the Halifax Resolves. Jullian R. Allsbrook suggested the date of the Mecklenburg Declaration (May 20, 1775) to be added to the state seal because it was already on the state flag and would “serve as a constant reminder of the people of this state’s commitment to liberty.” Esse Quam Videri is the state motto and means “to be rather than to seem.”
Yvonne Korchak, “The Liberty Cap as a Revolutionary Symbol in America and France,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Autumn, 1987); “Seal: The Great Seal of North Carolina” http://ncpedia.org/symbols/seal (accessed April 29, 2010); “State Seal of North Carolina” http://www.ncpublicschools.org/curriculum/socialstudies/elementary/studentsampler/08seal (accessed April 29, 2010); “The Great Seal of North Carolina” http://www.carolina-north.com/state_seal.html (accessed April 29, 2010); William Powell ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 2006).