The U.S. Military Academy Coat of Arms and Motto
“Duty, Honor, Country,” a striking expression of West Point ’s time-honored ideals, is the motto of the U.S. Military Academy and is imbedded in its coat of arms.
Though not as old as the institution they represent, the USMA coat of arms, also referred to as the seal, and motto have a long and interesting history.
According to archival records, the coat of arms and motto were adopted in 1898. Col. Charles W. Larned, professor of drawing, headed a committee to design a coat of arms for the Academy and stated several criteria for the design. The committee decided that the design should represent the national character of the Academy, its military function, its educational function and its spirit and objectives.
Symbolism in the Coat of Arms
The committee began with the creation of an emblem that consisted of a sword, a universal symbol of war, and the helmet of Pallas Athena. Athena, a fully armed mythological goddess, is associated with the arts of war, and her helmet signifies wisdom and learning. The emblem is attached to a shield, bearing the arms of the United States, and on the shield’s crest is a bald eagle, the national symbol. The eagle’s claws hold 13 arrows representing the 13 original states and oak and olive branches, traditional symbols of peace.
Duty, Honor, Country
The eagle is grasping a scroll bearing the words “West Point, MDCCCII (1802), USMA,” and the motto, “Duty, Honor, Country.” The motto as such was never previously stated, but in writings of early superintendents, professors and graduates, one is struck by the recurrence of the words “duty,” “honor” and “country.” Colonel Larned’s committee believed Duty, Honor, Country represented simply, but eloquently, the ideals of West Point.
The committee did not express an opinion as to the relative importance of the three words; however, there is perhaps significance in the fact that “honor” is in the center of the motto. As Maj. Gen. Bryant Moore noted in a 1951 article in Assembly magazine, “honor” forms the keystone of the arch of the three ideals on which West Point is founded.
The coat of arms was used without change until 1923, when Captain George Chandler, of the War Department, pointed out to Superintendent Brig. Gen. Fred Sladen that the eagle and helmet faced to the heraldic sinister side. The helmet, eagle’s head and sword were soon turned to their current position.
Since 1923, the coat of arms has been in regular use at West Point and is carved on many of the older buildings. In 1980, the coat of arms was registered with the Library of Congress as an “identifiable logo” for the Academy.