Understanding the Meaning & History of American Symbols

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

America is a country that loves symbols, and it has many. Learn about the meaning and history of some of the most important American symbols. Afterward, test your knowledge with a quiz.

The Importance of a Symbol

Symbols are important to humans. They represent ideas greater than themselves and are things that people of similar beliefs can congregate around. You can't hold the idea of America up in the air and wave it around, but you can do that with a flag. Humans also like representing one thing with another thing. The whole idea that storytelling can be used as a way to make a point or give life lessons is an act of symbolism. And humans love stories, because they can explain things in much more engaging and connecting ways. They can teach and inspire at the same time. And symbols that represent the United States of America are almost certainly inspiring.

But what is a symbol? A symbol is a thing that represents or stands for something different. Most often it is a material object that represents an abstract concept. A tall ship might represent freedom, or a candle flame might represent the light of God. Symbols can have important cultural, historical, or religious meaning. In this lesson, we are going to go through some of the most important symbols that represent the United States.

Flags, Seals, Mottos, and Anthems

The United States has a lot of symbols, and chief among these are its flags, seals, mottos, and anthems.

The American flag in particular is loaded with symbolism. The flag was important because the United States was formed in rebellion against the rule of Great Britain. It has therefore come to represent freedom from tyranny. The flag, known as the Stars & Stripes, contains a star for each U.S. state, and a bar for each of the 13 original colonies.

The U.S. Flag
The US Flag

The national anthem of the United States, The Star-Spangled Banner, is full of emotive language referencing the American Revolution and even speaks directly of the flag: 'O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.' The two are intimately connected.

The U.S. also has two mottos. The official motto reads, 'In God we trust' in reference to similar words found in the final verse of the national anthem. This was adopted in 1956 to replace the previous, unofficial motto, E pluribus unum, which is Latin for, 'One from many.' This previous motto is still included on the seal of the United States.

The Great Seal of the United States is a seal stamp that is used by the federal government to authenticate certain documents. It is found on U.S. passports, flags, and military insignia. The front side of the seal contains an American Eagle, supporting a shield with a flag-like design. The eagle holds arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other. This is said to symbolize that the U.S. prefers peace but is ready for war. There are 13 olives, 13 arrows, and 13 stars to represent the original 13 states. The city also has a reverse side containing a pyramid topped by an eye. This eye is called the Eye of Providence and is usually considered to represent the eye of God. Both sides of the seal are found in American currency.

Presidential seal showing the eagle design
Presidential Seal

Monuments, Buildings, and Objects

The U.S. also has many important monuments, buildings, and objects. The White House in Washington D.C. is home of the president and is therefore of the biggest symbols of America, well known across the world.

The Statue of Liberty in New York welcomes immigrants to the United States, symbolizing the fact that the United States was formed as a country of immigrants.

Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty

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