I have long been interested in what I often think of as “the American language” — the words with which our founders and those who inspired them expressed not just the lofty aim of creating a country that enabled the greatest possible extent of individual liberty, but the means that would work best, the tradeoffs involved, the fears of what could undermine it and how.
That was one of my motivations for my 2016 Lines of Liberty, which includes many of the most inspirational words from those who not only wrote about liberty, but acted to expand it or resist the encroachments that seem to always threaten it.
But that awareness — what was once America’s real “common core” — often leads me to despair of the abyss between that model and our current political culture, which violates the spirit of liberty far more often than upholds it.
Few phrases from our country’s creation illustrate that disconnect better than E Pluribus Unum: out of many, one.
The Latin can be traced to antecedents including Virgil (though not in the Aeneid, but rather in a poetic recipe for what we would now call pesto), Cicero, and Saint Augustine. I have come across “ex uno, pluria,” “ex uno, plures,” “ex uno, multi,” and “de unum, multis,” among others, as better translations, but the sentiment is clear, and sound.
A proposal to adopt the phrase for the Great Seal of the United States was forwarded to the Continental Congress on August 20, 1776, by a committee of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, who had been given the task on July 4 of that year.
The phrase echoes Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 “Join, or Die” cartoon,” and reflected John Adams’ description of the goal of our revolution: “A more equal liberty than has prevailed in other parts of the earth must be established in America.” It anticipates Thomas Jefferson’s conclusion that “The principles on which we engaged…issued finally in that inestimable state of freedom which alone can ensure to man the enjoyment of his equal rights.”
The actual Latin would have been Ex Pluribus Unum, but Ex was abbreviated to E, which gave the phrase 13 letters rather than 14, to better represent the uniting of America’s colonies in defense of our unalienable rights.
E Pluribus Unum was the de facto motto of the United States from the founding period (until legislation in 1956 made “In God we trust” the official motto). E Pluribus Unum maintains its prominent role in our Great Seal, and appears on the seals of the executive branch (President and Vice-President), the legislative branch (House and Senate), and the judicial branch (Supreme Court), as well as military flags and uniforms (Army and Navy), and official documents, such as passports. It has long been featured on our currency and coins as well.
E Pluribus Unum is even featured in a famous political flub, when in a 1984 speech, Al Gore translated it as “out of one, many.” Unfortunately, even though that reverses the actual meaning of the phrase, it seems like a fitting description of current projects: political divisiveness dressed up as unity.
Lee Habeeb, whose preferred translation of that reversal is “ex uno, plures,” has noted that it reveals the modern left’s negative view of “the uniquely American idea of the melting pot.” That is, “They don’t like it. They don’t want us all to melt into a common culture and set of ideals. Far better, goes their logic, to divide us along racial, ethnic and class lines.” In sum, “they don’t want to promote what we all have in common. They’d prefer to promote conflict and division.”
In other words, rather than a unity where all of us equally enjoy our unalienable rights, as envisioned by our motto, the left wants a divisive diversity of special rights and special treatment for those favored by government, which must necessarily come at the expense of equal rights for all. In a nutshell, they want to undo the purpose of the American Revolution.
To illustrate the contrast, Habeeb insightfully looks to the Bill of Rights, whose universal application can “actually promote harmony” by protecting all from government domination, versus the “living Constitution” the left prefers, because “They want the old one dead.”
Habeeb is correct to focus there. Our diversity can be used to create a cage fight among different groups for who should be given special better treatment and who must be forced to bear special worse treatment, enforced by government’s coercive power. But how many of us want our lives ruled by a version of cage fighting, in which others have incentives to harm us in order to benefit themselves, rather than under freedom’s rules, where others must seek to benefit us, because they need our voluntary agreement, in order to benefit themselves? As Dwight Lee once put it, “politicizing our differences is far more likely to make diversity a source of conflict than a cause of celebration.”
In this conflict, we should remember Lord Acton’s insight that “liberty is the only object which benefits all alike, and provokes no sincere opposition.” That is because freedom to choose for ourselves is always the primary means to our ultimate ends, and as Acton recognized, such liberty requires “the limitation of the public authority.”
When government overrides people’s choices instead of protecting their ability to make their own choices, its domination crowds out voluntary cooperation. That is why the rhetoric of political unity today is so Orwellian, where “we are united” doesn’t mean we all agree, but rather “those in our group are united in wanting to replace others’ preferences with our own, and we mean to get our way.” Americans would be better served if we once again took E Pluribus Unum as seriously as those who pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to achieve it.