Story by Carroll Leggett Photographs by Sandra Davidson
When I was Chief Deputy Attorney General of North Carolina in the 1970s, our office received a rather unusual request from Wake County officials. They were about to build a new county building in downtown Raleigh and intended to place the official state seal over the entrance, but they were confused about what the official seal was since several versions appeared around the Capital. I opted to respond because, frankly, it sounded like fun and would give me a chance to learn a bit of North Carolina history. Afterall, it would be easy... I thought.
I checked the general statutes which stated a copy of the official Great Seal of the State of North Carolina should be filed with the Secretary of State. So, I walked to the Capital and found then Secretary of State Thad Eure who, as always, was eager to talk. Eure said he would show me what he had, but no copy had ever been filed in accordance with the statute, so in effect there was no actual “official” seal. He retrieved an envelope from a file cabinet that had an image of the state seal in it. The envelop itself bore the image of a seal that differed from that inside.
At that point, I figured we were in trouble.
Sometime later, I had business at the Legislative Building and found myself walking across a huge image of the state seal in the front of the building. To my horror, the huge image — that untold numbers of North Carolinians had walked over and assumed was the official seal — had no ship on it representing the eastern portion of the state where I am from, rather, the “sea” portion of “mountains to the sea.” Further investigation found numerous variations of the seal.
In addition to the ship, another recurring difference I noticed was in one of the female figures depicted on the seal. I asked Deputy Attorney General Ralph Moody — then dean of all state lawyers and a source of all sorts of information and wisdom — about the lady. “She represents Liberty,” Moody told me. The pole topped with a cap was a symbol of freedom (originally a mark of defiance by escaped Roman Slaves) that had been popularized in the American revolution.
“But,” I asked, “How about all the various versions of the seal I have seen that have her wearing a cap and displaying a cap on her staff?” Moody explained they were corruptions of the original. We concluded that the only way to settle the matter was to draft a statute that described quite explicitly the “official” Great Seal of the State of North Carolina, have it passed by the General Assembly, and then file a copy that conformed with the description with the Secretary of State. I set out to do just that.
Back at my office, I sat down to draft the description. Bob Scott was governor then, and he had commissioned as souvenirs large ashtrays with his signature on the bottom and the state’s seal on the front. I picked up my ashtray sitting on my desk and by golly, it matched in every detail of what my notion of the seal should be: the mountains were on the left, the ocean and ship were on the right, the representation of Freedom was in the middle, bareheaded with her slave’s cap hanging on her staff, and Plenty, the second figure, was sitting with her arm extended toward Liberty, holding three heads of grain in her right hand and in her left, the small end of her horn.
So, yes, you guessed it, I drafted the statute using the ash tray on my desk.
My friend and state representative, Gerald Arnold, who was representing my home county of Harnett, introduced the bill in 1971. The bill passed and today there is assuredly an ”official” Great Seal of the State of North Carolina on file with the Secretary of State. Assuredly, the ship and the sea made it on the seal, and Liberty’s hat quandary was laid to rest.
*Editors’ Note: In 1983, a revision approved by the state legislature added the date of the Halifax Resolves, April 12, 1776, to the seal.