Charlton Heston the Face of the U.S.A.? How Moses Was Chosen for the Great Seal

THIS WEEK IN MOSES: The biblical hero becomes the face of America.

Immediately after approving the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress formed a committee to design a new seal for the United States. As proof of its importance, the committee had three members, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Franklin and Jefferson independently proposed that Moses appear as the public face of the new country. (Adams proposed Hercules, but declared his own selection unoriginal.)

The parallels between a small beleaguered band colonists fighting for freedom against the greatest empire in the world and the small, beleaguered community of Israelite slaves fighting against the greatest empire in the world was widely popular in 1776. Thomas Paine, in the best-selling book of the year, Common Sense, made the connection explicitly. He called King George “a pharaoh.”

On August 20th, the seal committee submitted its official recommendation:

Pharaoh sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his head and a Sword in his hand, passing through the divided Waters of the Red Sea in Pursuit of the Israelites: Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Cloud, expressive of the divine Presence and Command, beaming on Moses who stands on the shore and extending his hand over the Sea causes it to overwhelm Pharaoh.

The committee’s report offers vivid, behind-the-scenes evidence that the founders of the United States viewed themselves as acting in the image of Moses. Three of the five drafters of the Declaration of Independence and three of the defining faces of the Revolution – Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams – proposed that Moses be the face of the United States of America. In their eyes, Moses was America’s true founding father.

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