Richmond City Hall. (Photo by Rob Hendricks)
Put in Facebook terms, the seal of the city is Richmond’s profile picture.
The City of Richmond's official seal. (Photo courtesy of The Valentine)
The circular graphic appears on the older public buildings, official stationery and proclamations. A standing allegorical figure — she wears a flowing robe of antiquity and, unlike the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Amazonian Virtus, has her bosom chastely covered — holds in her right hand the Scales of Justice. Her left hand grasps a righteous sword. Near her foot is a luxurious tobacco plant. At the bottom is inscribed the date July 19, 1782, which sounds historic, but the event it commemorates is when Richmond’s first impaneled Common Council voted to appoint a committee to choose a city seal — not even the day when the body selected one.
Along the top arch of the seal is the Latin phrase, “SIC ITUR AD ASTRA.” The phrase possesses sufficient gravitas and lineage. It appears in Virgil’s epic The Aenid ( a real epic, not the faddish description of late ) when the god Apollo congratulates the triumphant warrior Anchises, saying: Your heroic deeds will make your name eternal. The phrase’s literal meaning is “thus you shall go to the stars,” but the more poetic, metaphorical interpretation is “thus is immortality gained.”
In the spring of 1782 the city fathers, imbued by the pride of the American Revolution’s Yorktown victory just six months earlier, sought a bold statement of intent for Richmond. “Sic itur ad astra” expresses how the city should fulfill the Revolution’s promise and its government and citizens accomplish great deeds of
The romantic aspiration seems a bit overreaching these days. And that’s too bad.
Richmond assumed the title of state capital in 1780. The General Assembly convened in a former warehouse at 14th and East Cary streets, where now stands the First Freedom Center and the Residence Inn and Courtyard by Marriott.
If any date should be on that official medallion, it’s May 6, 1782. On that day, Richmond became the sixth municipality in the commonwealth to receive an upgrade in designation to that of city. Its population was 1,800, though half of that number was enslaved. Every Richmonder could’ve filled, though with some social awkwardness, the present Carpenter Theatre. The date of the city’s official inception — in astrological terms — makes Richmond a Taurus.
The first municipal elections took place on July 2, 1782, installing physician and derring-do personality William Foushee as the mayor. The Thomas Jefferson-designed statehouse opened for business some six years later.
Though a committee was given the task of creating a seal, nothing official occurred by July 4, 1785, when the Common Council noted the conspicuousness of the seal’s absence. Thus, for a time, the private seal of Mayor Robert Mitchell became what the city clerk affixed to ordinances. Mitchell held the office for six nonconsecutive one-year terms between 1784 and 1804.
An actual seal appears on an ordinance for Oct. 10, 1806. It features the familiar standing figure of Justice, the City of Richmond inscription, and in Roman numerals, July 9, 1782, and the mission-affirming motto.
On Jan. 18, 1819, a new seal appeared bearing the same legend, but Justice held the scales in her left hand and in her right hand the “ponderous sword,” and the date changed from July 9 to July 19, 1782. Was this a perpetuated pen-stroke error or a research mistake?
Whatever the case, the seal vanished during the reign of confusion at the Civil War’s end. The emphatic motto stated, “Fiat justitia ruat coelom,” or, “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.” This is a paraphrase derived from various ancient sources.
The city reverted to the pre-1865 seal on March 12, 1867.
A Sept. 9, 1872, report on the seal’s history conducted by a three-man council committee that was chaired by businessman and antiquarian Thomas Hicks Wynne concluded, “No two of these seals were exactly alike. But worse than this, not one of them has any legal sanction; nor have we any clue to the meaning of their inscriptions … It is therefore evident that we have never had a city seal the authority of which could be supported ‘by anything else but usage.’ ” In other words, what made it the Richmond seal was repetition, not legislation.
The council decided that as of Oct. 1, 1872, the seal would feature “a sitting female figure, clothed in classic costume, wearing a laurel crown” holding in her left hand a bundle of tobacco leaves, the river at her feet and symbols of industry alongside. Her extended right hand pointed to “Sic itur ad astra” above her head and beneath the figure, “Richmond, Va. Founded by William Byrd. .” In April of that year William Byrd II and his real estate partner, William Mayo, laid out the plots of the place and advertised them for purchase. The actual charter granting Richmond status as a town occurred on May 15, 1742. (Still a Taurus). The council order didn’t equivocate: “From and after this date no other seal shall be used.”
And that lasted about seven years.
The seal got a makeover that seated the figure, kept “sic itur” and the founding date, and placed the river on the right amid a wharf, factories and tobacco on a hillside.
But on Aug. 17, 1908, the city returned to the seal bearing the meaningless July 19, 1782.
Thus it remains.