E Pluribus Unum

2016-07-sketch-of-great-sealLinda Burton posting from Arkadelphia, Arkansas – Got a US Passport? Look at the front of it. Got a one-dollar bill? Look at the back of it. Fish a dime out of your change bowl and look on the backside of that too. Look for this Latin phrase: E Pluribus Unum. Sometimes you’ll find the words embedded in the banner of the Great Seal, sometimes, due to available space I suppose, just printed straight across or curved around the edges. Do you know the meaning of these words? And how this phrase came to be an everyday, ordinary part of the American scene? First, let’s translate: E Pluribus Unum, in English form, means “out of many, one.” When Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams got together back in 1776 to create an official seal for a brand-new country, they settled on the obvious basics for the design: different people from different places, now together. Their initial sketch had a shield in the middle, composed of many smaller shields; look closely to see six symbols – a rose (England), thistle (Scotland), harp (Ireland), fleur-de-lis (France), lion (Holland), and eagle (Germany), which they described as “the countries from which these states have been peopled.” Now look around the edges of the shield to see the initials of the “thirteen independent states of America.”

2016-08-sealThey submitted their idea to Congress on August 20, 1776, but it was not approved; in true group-think fashion it took several more committees before a final design was approved in
1782, one with the now-familiar American eagle in the center; the eagle carries a banner in its beak bearing that original phrase, E Pluribus Unum. You’ll notice a lot of thirteens on the seal – 13 stars, 13 stripes, 13 arrows in the eagle’s talon. And did you catch – there are 13 letters in E Pluribus Unum! I doubt Ben and Thom and John were thinking about that when they suggested the phrase; it seems to have been a recurring theme from the time of classic writers and organized systems of government. Some claim Virgil used it; some say St Augustine; perhaps it was Cicero? Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) was a Roman philosopher, lawyer, and theorist, active in politics; during his last year he was trying to stop revolutionary forces from taking control of the Roman Republic; that’s when he wrote De Officiis, in which he tried to define the ideals of public behavior. “When each person loves the other as much as himself, it makes one out of many.” Ah, politics, and public behavior. Fast forward to July 2016, and the cities of Cleveland and Philadelphia. Two conventions, back to back in the heat of July; much dissension and disagreement; tension and strife, broadcast for public view. I heard a newscaster quip: “I see the pluribus, now where is the unum?”

Amidst all the clamor and posturing and verbal elbowing, where do our standards rest today?  Are things really as bad as they were portrayed during those two weeks? I did a little fact-checking about the state of the states, as recorded by the US Census Bureau. http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/

As of 2015, the US population was 321,418,820; racially that breaks down to 61.6% White, 17.6% Latino or Hispanic, 13.8% African-American, 5.6% Asian, and 1.4% Native. The median household income is $53,482 and 14.8% of the population live in poverty. That’s one way of describing the pluribus, but falls far short of revealing the heartset. Pollsters ask questions and post percentages; rally-planners tape signs up and give out hats and bunch the crowd for media show; interviewers frequent coffee shops and barbecues asking the questions: What is most important to you in a leader? What is your vision for our country? Do you fear for your safety? How about your job?

I think about the people I met on the Journey, fifty states-worth of living alongside them and learning about their lives; I didn’t see much anger, I did see some apathy, but mostly I saw pride; folks taking care of their community and living contentedly in their section of the bigger picture; I saw unum. Remember that post I wrote from Indianapolis? “It’s not what you’ve got that matters, it’s how much you love what you’ve got.” http://capitalcitiesusa.org/?p=9104  Imagine the excitement in the room as Ben and Thom and John were pondering the possibilities of a completely NEW country. So many people from so many places, now united as one! And Topsy grew and grew and grew. Now the US population represents far more countries than those six they drew on that shield; now there are more races, religions, languages and ancestries than they could have dreamed.

So how do we make it work? Take care of the things you love. Vote for what you believe in. Be proud of where you came from and where you are. Think positive. Do your part. Avoid unacceptable behavior on the playground! Get along, without giving up your ideals. And every now and then, pull a dollar bill out of your pocket and read the banner in the eagle’s beak. E Pluribus Unum. Then remember, to paraphrase dear Mr Cicero a bit, “When each person respects the other as much as himself, we can accomplish many things together, as one.”

Did you know?

E Pluribus Unum has appeared on coins since 1795.

E Pluribus Unum has graced the back of $1 notes since 1935.

E Pluribus Unum is on the seal of the President, the Vice President, the United States Congress, the United States Supreme Court, and every branch of the United States military.