Do you know the meaning of that phrase?
It is a Latin phrase that translates to “Out of many, one.” This simple phrase is found on our Great Seal and elsewhere including on our currency, a variety of seals for all three branches of government, as well as the Apotheosis of Washington on the Rotunda of the Capitol Building.
While the meaning of the phrase has evolved over the course of time, the cause for its inclusion on our Great Seal is fascinating!
In 1731, Edward Cave founded a periodical entitled “The Gentleman’s Magazine.” Rather than focusing on one topic, the magazine was more of a compilation or digest of news and opinion pieces. Over the course of time many well-known writers, including Samuel Johnson, were published in the “Gentleman’s Magazine.” It seems he was a bit of a rebel himself because he submitted reports about the British Parliamentary debates even though such reporting had been prohibited. As time passed, the phrase “E Pluribus Unum” became associated with the periodical referencing the multiple sources of its material. A 1774 issue of the magazine included a poem that dealt with the motto: “To your motto most true, for our monthly inspection, You mix various rich sweets in one fragrant collection.” “The Gentleman’s Magazine” was read far and wide – including in the colonies.
On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson to “bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America.” Although I am uncertain which event took place first but, Martha Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, was known to have received drawing instructions from an artist named Pierre Eugene Du Simitiere. At any rate, Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson consulted Du Simitiere regarding the design of the seal. His design included the phrase “E Pluribus Unum” which referenced both the nations from which many immigrants to the American Colonies traveled, as well as the nation which was created from the thirteen colonies was created. A letter from Adams to his wife on August 14, 1776 indicated that inclusion of the motto was Du Simitiere’s idea. Many historians believe that Du Simitiere was familiar with this phrase because of its use in “The Gentleman’s Magazine.”
The famous trio submitted their design to the Continental Congress on August 20, 1776. Of course, it should be noted that on the same day the Congress had finalized the Articles of Confederation. The presentation of the design was made after a lengthy session. Consequently, it should be no surprise that there was not a rush to action over symbol immediately after such a significant event! I should also note that on the back of their proposed design was another motto: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” It seems the motto was Benjamin Franklin’s idea, but I digress…more about our Great Seal on another day. After three tries the Great Seal of the United States of America was finalized. Included on the seal was the phrase: “E Pluribus Unum.” The phrase went on to become a motto associated with the United States of America.
“The Gentleman’s Magazine” continued to be published until 1922. The attached image is a page from “The Gentleman’s Magazine” published in 1737 which displays the phrase “E Pluribus Unum.”
Please take a moment to consider the interconnection between the people, actions, and events of the Founding are interconnected. I more that I learn about the individuals connected with the Founding, the courage they exhibited, and the events which they inspired, the more I believe they are the basis for What IS Right With America!
Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.