I got a little lost in a national motto rabbit hole yesterday. After the ridiculousness of the “In God We Trust” bill on Tuesday, I saw a few folks wondering aloud (atwitter?) about good old e pluribus unum. Particularly since it wasn’t too long ago that the whole country was paying a lot of attention to people in tricorn hats waving copies of the Constitution in the air, spitting fricatives (founding fathers!), shouldn’t there be a lot of support for a nice secular motto rooted in the nation’s founding and more in tune with America’s identity? What ever happened to e pluribus unum?
The short answer is that e pluribus unum was never technically the national motto. It’s just a motto on the national seal. The Great Seal literally does date back to the nation’s founding. It wasn’t officially accepted until 1782, but they were working on it in 1776.
Wanna see something cool? You can read the entry in the Papers of the Congressional Congress (Thursday, June 20, 1782) pitching the seal design. (If you get lost, it’s pages 338, 339 and 340.)
I’d always thought we, as Americans, were meant to be the “pluribus,” acting as one, but actually the “pluribus” is the states (represented by the stripes on the shield on the eagle’s chest). With the national disposition being such that a secessionist is running for president, proponents of a “states united under a central government” motto are probably not going to get very far.
This site (which I wish had better/any citations because it’s very comprehensive) says the original draft of the Great Seal had symbols for the original founding nationalities, so the “pluribus” in the original design referred to the many different nationalities. It’s just as well that design didn’t survive because celebrating immigrant heritage would also probably not be a winner in today’s political climate.
The Great Seal isn’t just the eagle. There’s an official reverse side that is the unfinished pyramid that serves as a plot point in Dan Brown novels. And that side has two more mottos: Annuit Coeptis and Novus Ordo Seclorum. But again, though they are part of the Great Seal, apparently no one ever thought to distinguish any of them with an official status of their own.
The actual “In God we trust” bill is surprisingly brief:
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of American in Congress assembled, That the national mottor of the United States is hereby declared to be “In God we trust.” Approved July 30, 1956
I assume there was a lot of speechifying in the service of the bill, but that doesn’t appear to have made it to the bill itself.
The same cannot be said for the odd litany of historical justifications in Tuesday’s bill, which frankly reads like one of those chain e-mails you get from your born-again relative trying to argue that the United States is a Christian nation (“Whereas the Declaration of Independence recognizes God, our Creator, as the source of our rights…”).
Actually, what Tuesday’s bill is similiar to is the findings portion of the Pledge of Allegiance. “Under God” came in June of 1954, so a couple of years before “In God we trust.”
God trusters looking to bolster their case with more of that founding-document gravitas should reconsider the Seal’s reverse. As its designer, Charles Thomson, described it in the 1782 report, “The eye over [the pyramid] and the motto allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favour of the American cause.” Or would that be more like “In us God trusts”?
(Headline from: An ode for the 4th of July 1788)