The University of Michigan, an encyclopedic survey ... Wilfred B. Shaw, editor.
University of Michigan.


THE first of the "Laws and Ordinances of the University of Michigania" concerns the procuring of a seal for the new University. It is dated September 12, 1817, and is signed by John Monteith; the original may be seen in the manuscript record-book now in the University Library, and it has been printed in the Records of the University of Michigan, 1817-1837 (p. 21). The design for the seal is described as "representing six pillars supporting a dome, with the motto 'Epistemia' at their base, and the legend, 'Seal of the University of Michigania,' around the margin, and light shining on the dome from above." This ordinance further provides that until the seal should be procured the president might use any temporary seal which was convenient. In all probability the seal never was actually produced and put in use, for comissions signed by John Monteith in the following year, 1818, are sealed with a plain wafer, and in 1824, after the name of the University had been changed and its government placed in the hands of a board of trustees, the matter was taken up anew.

On October 29, 1824, the president of the Board, Lewis Cass, was made a committee "to cause a seal to be procured for the University with a proper device thereon." On April 30, 1825, the seal was adopted. It is described as "having upon it certain emblematick devices, and these words near the circumference, 'Seal of the University of Michigan.'" James O. Lewis was paid $25 for making this seal. Unfortunately, no impression from it is in the University's collections, although there must have been frequent occasions to use it in connection with the numerous land transactions of the Board of Trustees.

The Regents of the University, created by the act of March 18, 1837, had no specially designed seal until 1843. As early as March 3, 1838, the secretary of the Board was authorized to procure a seal, but on April 16 of the same year it was voted that a "paper seal impressed with a common stamp" be used until a permanent seal should be provided. At the meeting of April 5, 1843, this seal was actually produced by Major Jonathan Kearsley. It is thus described in the minutes of the meeting (R.P., 1837-64, p. 262): "Minerva pointing a youth to the Temple of Wisdom, surrounded with the inscription, 'University of Michigan,' and 'Minerva monstrat iter quaque ostendit se dextra sequamur.'" This was the first Page  215appearance of the so-called Minerva seal, which remained in use, with several recuttings, until 1895.

It has been pointed out that its design is practically identical with that of the frontispiece which regularly appeared in the editions of Noah Webster's Elementary Spelling Book subsequent to 1829. This frontispiece also shows Minerva pointing to a temple that bears the inscriptions "Fame" and "Knowledge" and is placed on a hill. A youth is by her side, and Minerva is represented as a standing rather than a sitting figure. There was no motto, but the name of the engraver, Alexander Anderson, appears. The motto on the seal seems to have been taken by Major Kearsley, who was a competent Latinist, from Vergil's Aeneid ii, 388, the only change being to insert the word "Minerva" before the verb "monstrat." This slight change, however, entirely alters the general tenor of the quotation, for in the Aeneid the subject of the verb is "fortuna salutis." It is part of Aeneas' account of the sack of Troy.

No satisfactory explanation of the likeness between Michigan's seal and the frontispiece of the Elementary Spelling Book has been advanced. It seems more likely, however, that Major Kearsley was attracted to the design and fitted the motto to it than that he first chose the motto and then suggested a design which, by a remarkable coincidence, so closely approximated that in the spelling book.

As first cut, the Minerva seal had a straight line between the motto and the design. At some time between 1863 and 1866 a second die was obtained, in which the line of separation became a double curve and certain other changes of detail were made, although the design as a whole remained the same. The records of the University do not show when this change was made, although on September 12, 1860, a resolution, offered by Regent Donald McIntyre, provided that a committee of three should be appointed to prepare a new seal. Nothing further was said about Regent McIntyre's committee. A third cutting of the seal, however, was made before the Minerva design was finally abandoned. It was very like the second cutting, but some details were altered. There are, for example, seven stars in the border instead of three.

The present design of the University seal dates from 1894-95. At the Regents' meeting of December 14, 1894, President Angell and Professor Calvin Thomas "called attention to the desirability of a new University seal" and the executive committee was requested to secure a new design. This was unanimously adopted at the meeting of October 16, 1895 (R.P., 1891-96, pp. 387, 530). It is the familiar seal now in use, showing the sun behind a shield, on which appears the lamp of knowledge standing upon a book. The motto, "Artes, Scientia, Veritas," is on a ribbon below the shield, and "University of Michigan" fills the upper part of the border. When it was first adopted, the date "1837" was shown in the lower part of the border, but, as the result of the recommendation of the alumni committee on University history and traditions and by resolution of the Regents on May 24, 1929, the year "1817" was substituted.

Besides the great seal of the University, which is in the custody of the secretary of the Board of Regents and is impressed upon diplomas and official documents, from time to time there have been made, for the use of various divisions of the University, seals which are similar to the University seal, but bear the additional words, "Law School," "University Hospital," or whatever the name of the unit may be. The first recorded action sanctioning the use of Page  216seals of this sort was taken by the Regents November 17, 1905, when the Department of Law and the Department of Engineering were permitted to secure seals for official college use.


The Michigan Book. Ann Arbor: Inland Press, 1898.
Proceedings of the Board of Regents …, 1864-1940. (R.P.)
Records of the University of Michigan, 1817-1837. Ed. by Frank E. Robbins. Ann Arbor: Univ. Mich., 1935.
Schurtz, Shelby B.Michigan Corrects Its Shield. Detroit: Beta Theta Pi, 1931.
Shoemaker, Edwin C.Noah Webster, Pioneer of Learning. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1936.
University of Michigan Regents' Proceedings …, 1837-1864. Ed. by Isaac N. Demmon. Ann Arbor: Univ. Mich., 1915. (R.P., 1837-64.)