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Oct. 22 2012 7:25 PM

The Unsolved Mystery of the Presidential Debate Seal

What are the origins of those words beneath the seal?

Workers put the finishing touches on the stage on Sunday for the final presidential debate.
Workers put the finishing touches on the stage on Sunday for the final presidential debate that will take place at Lynn University on Monday between President Obama and Mitt Romney, in Boca Raton, Florida.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

While waiting for the second debate to start, I got a closer look at the eagle that hangs between the candidates. It has been making appearances at presidential debates at least since George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton squared off in 1992. I was struck at first by the fact that the eagle has its head turned toward the talon with the arrows in it. The eagle usually faces the olive branches. The warlike posture was fitting for that second presidential debate last week when it seemed like one of the candidates might reach for the arrows and impale his opponent at any moment. Or, in Romney's case, Candy Crowley.

On the Slate Political Gabfest last week, we speculated about the origins of a phrase that appears at the bottom of the seal. It reads: “The Union and the Constitution Forever."  We asked our listeners and readers to weigh in with an explanation for this call to arms. We had a lot of responses, but the picture is still incomplete. Perhaps one of you can clear up the mystery by emailing us at slatepolitics@gmail.com.

Here’s what we know right now. The first use of this phrase we can find is in a sermon from June 6, 1853, by the Rev. Hubbard Winslow collected in the Annual Record of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts. The reverend concludes his barnburner with those words. Nine years later, the New York Times quoted  the Rev. Francis Vinton, who ended his own sermon arguing for maintaining the Union with the same phrase. 

In Civil War recruitment posters, the eagle faces the arrows, as he does on the debate stage, but a different pro-union message appeared underneath: “The Union forever!” The first time I can find the image and the phrase appearing together is in a campaign handkerchief for the Garfield-Arthur Republican campaign of 1880. In the campaign of 1892, the Benjamin Harrison-Whitelaw Reid ticket used it on their handkerchief, too. But on these representations, the eagle's head is turned toward the olive branches—seems fitting for a country emerging from the Civil War. 

At this point, the trail goes cold for about a 100 years and turns up again on a bar of silver in 1973. In this depiction, the eagle's head is turned back toward the arrows, as it does on the debate stage. The Commission on Presidential Debates doesn't have a good answer for the origin of the eagle—they say it's an amalgam based on something they found in the Smithsonian Museum. We have faith that one of you out there will help provide us with the definitive answers about the origin of this phrase, its use, and how it came to be associated with that design. 

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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