State seal set to get a makeover

Commission, not at full strength, to hold first meeting

AFTER HUNDREDS of years, the state’s coat of arms, seal, and state flag are getting a makeover, or at least that’s the plan.

A commission created by a state resolution that made its way through the Legislature last year and won final approval at 4 a.m. on January 6 holds its first meeting today. The commission doesn’t have its full complement of 19 members yet, but it needs to get moving because it has an October 1 deadline for coming up with a new design. 

The current design, which is ubiquitous on windows, flags, and documents at the State House, features a Native American holding a bow in his right hand and a downward-facing arrow in his left. Above him is a disembodied arm holding a sword.  Underneath, in Latin, are the words “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”

The design of the seal went through several iterations between 1629 and 1780, some of them engraved by Paul Revere. The design didn’t become fixed until the late 1800s, when the Legislature approved a strict description and a statewide contest yielded an official version that remains in use today.

The commission is charged with ensuring the state’s seal and motto “faithfully reflect and embody the historic and contemporary commitments of the commonwealth to peace, justice, liberty, and equality and to spreading the opportunities and advantages of education.” 

The debate over the seal is similar to debates in recent years about statues and team mascots that have come to be seen as offensive. Elizabeth Solomon, an elder of the Massachusetts Tribe at Ponkapoag, issued a statement when the Legislature adopted the resolution urging the governor to quickly sign it. 

“The imagery of the current flag and seal promotes a history of conquest, appropriation, and genocide,” she said.

Seal of Massachusetts at the State House.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Lucas Guerra and Scott Zoback, who work for a branding and communications agency in Boston, wrote an op-ed for CommonWealth a year ago suggesting the seal represents cultural values that are centuries out of date. 

Whatever your interpretation, it is a boastfully ethnocentric image that shouts a message of domination to every Native American, immigrant, person of color, or other resident who walks into any state building, particularly the State House,” they wrote. “Changing the seal isn’t about erasing history. On the contrary, this is about recognizing history itself, and representing the history of a diverse state in an inclusive manner. This is a small gesture about recognizing the true breadth of experience in our history, even if we will never right wrongs.”