Opinion: It Starts with a Seal

Cities and towns across America are struggling to define themselves in an increasingly polarized national landscape. With our 24-hour news cycles and social media bubbles, we often focus on what separates us from each other, rather than the identity we share through local history and community spirit.

Efforts to heal our divisions must start on the local level. The symbols and icons that define us must include, acknowledge, and represent all members of our communities.

Here in Groton, our town’s identity is symbolically represented by a divisive and long-controversial 1898 Town Seal.

Although Groton was founded in 1655, it had no official town seal until the 19th century had very nearly clicked over into the 20th. And a seal was only adopted then because 1898 was the last year in which the cities and towns of Massachusetts could issue vital documents without one.1

To meet this statutory deadline, the Town of Groton appointed a three-member Committee of the Town Seal, which only ever held two meetings of any consequence.2

At the first meeting, the committeemen outsourced their design duties to the Honorable Samuel A. Green, a Groton-born medical doctor turned historian, turned politician, turned author, turned man who was eager to try his hand at graphic design, from thirty-plus miles away in his then-current hometown of Boston.3

At the second meeting, the committeemen received their first-time designer’s first-draft submission–the now-familiar “Faith and Labor” design–and passed it along to Town Meeting for approval.4

For the work product of an expert in Groton’s history and culture, the “Faith and Labor” design is oddly generic. Dr. Green could easily have referenced Groton’s unique drumlin swarm geography, its contributions to the American Revolution, or any of the storied names, structures, and institutions that shaped the town’s identity from 1655 until his own time. And yet, his submission included none of the elements that might have helped tell Groton’s unique story.

Instead, Dr. Green used religious iconography common to all of the strict Puritan communities of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, paired with imagery representing the predominant occupation throughout all of New England. Because faith and labor were the common currency of the time, these symbols do nothing to distinguish Groton from any other place.

The explanatory letter included with the design gives us some hint as to why.5 Viewed through the Victorian-era prism of Dr. Green, as he stood 120 years behind us while peering back 240 years more distant from that, we can see his vision of a town seal as it might have been created in the town’s earliest days.

In the Groton of 1655, where church attendance was mandatory and heretics were banished, a religious symbol on an official seal would have made perfect sense. Religion and government were one and the same, the Church blended with the State, and Dr. Green’s design would have been entirely fitting if it had existed at the time.6

In the Groton of 1775, the town and its balance of religion and government had evolved. Town residents angrily dismissed their spiritual leader for failing to support a popular political cause of the day: the struggle to free the colonies from British rule.7 The Reverend Samuel Dana never returned to the ministry, instead becoming a lawyer, probate judge, and New Hampshire state senator.

In the Groton of 1898, as part of the free country that Groton residents had helped to create and whose Union they had recently fought to preserve, town government was constitutionally barred from endorsing any one religion or religion in general.8 The town had evolved again, and Dr. Green’s retro-1655 design was no longer an appropriate concept.

Nor does the 1898 Town Seal represent Dr. Green’s best work. As a worthy first attempt, rushed into service to meet a state-imposed deadline, it has always ever been a placeholder for the seal that Dr. Green might have given us if he’d had the time to explore multiple ideas, make multiple revisions, and incorporate feedback from residents with a diversity of viewpoints.

In the Groton of 2017, in which Dr. Green is no longer with us, we are the ones tasked with being the stewards of Groton’s past and the shepherds of its perpetually improving future. The long-overdue revisions to the 1898 Town Seal are our duty and obligation to undertake. In doing so, we must approach this task in the spirit of continuing Dr. Green’s work, taking inspiration from his service, and honoring his legacy in the context of our evolving community.

A new Town Seal Committee, this time meeting more than just twice and incorporating the ideas of more than just one man, is the proper entity to address these issues and finally give us a symbol that can represent Groton’s past, present, and future alike.

It’s just one seal in one small town but small efforts can add up to large results. One symbol or policy at a time, we can bridge the divisiveness in our communities and again become one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Article 35 at the upcoming Spring Town Meeting would create a Town Seal Committee charged with soliciting public input into the design for a new Town Seal; selecting from among the submissions received the design that best embodies Groton’s character, history, and aspirational values; and presenting that design to a future Town Meeting for approval. Please attend to voice your support.

As a member of the Groton Interfaith Council, Greg R. Fishbone supports its mission to foster understanding, respect, justice and peace among people of a variety of religious traditions through worship, fellowship, education, and service. As a former board member of the Groton Historical Society, he has worked to preserve Groton’s rich historical resources, promote its proud traditions, and recognize that its history includes the present and future as well. He and his wife are the parents of two proud young Grotonites.

Opinion blog posts represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by Indivisible Groton Area or its individual members. IGA invites input and opinion from among the diversity of its membership.

  1. 1898 Acts and Resolves of the General Court of Massachusetts Chapter 389, as amended by 1899 Acts Chapter 256, is still in effect today.
  2. The Committee of the Town Seal was composed of Chairman Michael Sheedy Jr, Charles Woolley, and Francis M. Boutwell. Their official report can be found in the Board of Selectmen notes for the year ending March 19, 1898.
  3. From the committee report:

    “Shortly after our appointment the attention of Dr. Samuel A. Green was called to the matter, and with his usual interest to all things that relates to his native town, he readily offered his service in preparation of a design.”

    It’s not clear whether Dr. Green approached the committee or whether they approached him, but the report mentions no other prospective designers.

  4. This was the meeting at which the committee finalized its report, March 16, 1898, on the very same day Dr. Green’s design arrived from Boston. Spring Town Meeting was held April 4, 1898. The new legislative act went on the books on April 29, 1898.
  5. Dr. Green’s 1898 letter is reproduced in a book he co-authored with Elizabeth Sewall Hill, Facts Relating to the History of Groton, Massachusetts, Volume 2, on pages 171-172:

    Boston, March 16, 1898

    To: Michael Sheedy, Jr., Esq., Groton

    Dear Sir:

    Agreeably to your request I send herewith a design, as given above, for a Town Seal of Groton. For the convenience of the voters, who are the final judges in the matter, I have had it printed, so that at a glance its general effect may be more readily seen. The design is a simple one, and is intended to typify the character of its inhabitants.

    The Bible represents the faith of the early settlers of the town, who went into the wilderness and suffered innumerable privations in their daily life as well as danger from savage foes. Throughout Christen-dom to-day it is the corner-stone of religion and morality. The Plough is significant of the general occupation of the people. By it the early settlers broke up the land and earned their livelihood; and ever since it has been an invaluable help in the tillage of the soil.

    Very respectfully,

    Samuel A. Green

  6. Groton’s early years fell between the 1630s banishment of Roger Williams and Anne Huchinson for heresy and the 1690s Salem witch trials and executions.

    The intolerant and brutal theocracy of that time should not be conflated with the tolerant and caring faith communities of Groton today.

  7. The Reverend Samuel Dana had to realign his politics and literally beg the town’s forgiveness in order to remain in Groton in this letter:

    I, the subscriber, being deeply affected with the miseries brought on this Country by a horrid thirst for ill-got wealth and unconstitutional power; and lamenting my unhappiness in being left to adopt principles in politicks different from the generality of my countrymen, and thence to conduct in a manner that has but too justly excited the jealousy and resentment of the true sons of liberty against me, earnestly desirous at the same time to give them all the satisfaction in my power, do hereby sincerely ask forgiveness of all such for whatever I have said or done that had the least tendency to the injury of my Country, assuring them that it is my full purpose, in my proper sphere, to unite with them in all those laudable and fit measures that have been recommended by the Continental and Provincial Congresses, for the salvation of this Country, hoping my future conversation and conduct will fully prove the uprightness of my present professions.

    Groton. May 23, 1775.

    Dana’s public apology was accepted by the town’s Committee of Correspondence:

    The inhabitants of Groton in town-meeting assembled, the Reverend Samuel Dana offered that to the Town with regard to his political principles and conduct with which the Town voted themselves fully satisfied, and that he ought to enjoy the privileges of society in common with other members; and we hope this, with the following by him subscribed, will be fully satisfactory to the publick.

    Committee of Correspondence for GROTON.

  8. Per the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, applied to town government by the Fourteenth Amendment.

    No one can predict how a court would resolve such a case, but certainly no one wants to endure the contentious, drawn-out, and expensive legal proceedings that would be required to find out.

    With a non-zero chance that the 1898 adoption of the seal could be invalidated, along with every document issued by the town in the past 120 years, the potential liability is unimaginable.

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Greg R. Fishbone
Greg R. Fishbone is an author of books for young readers. He lives in Groton with his wife and two girls.