What E Pluribus Unum Means
Today I found out what “E pluribus unum” means.
E pluribus unum translates from Latin to English as follows: “e” meaning “from” or “out of”; “pluribus” being the ablative plural of the Latin for “more”; and “unum” meaning “one”. Thus, “E pluribus unum” simply means “from many, one” or “out of many, one”.
This Latin phrase was once the United States’ motto and can be found on the official seal of the U.S., among other places. It is thought to have been borrowed from the cover of a popular English periodical, The Gentlemen’s Magazine. This particular magazine was an extremely popular and influential men’s magazine among the elite and highly educated. While some of the content of the magazine was original, much of it was gathered from other sources (hence the word “magazine”, meaning “storehouse”, being used for the first time to describe a periodical). On the cover of this periodical, they’d generally include the phrase “E Pluribus Unum” signifying they gathered the content from a variety of sources.
Pierre-Eugène Ducimetière, the artistic consultant for the design of the official seal of the U.S., The Great Seal, suggested that this be placed on the seal, which it finally was in 1782 after three major revisions to the seal design. In this context, this was meant to signify the 13 colonies forming one unified government.
It was not long after this, in 1795, that E pluribus unum appeared on a $5 gold coin, which mimicked the U.S. seal in cover design. In 1798, the phrase was added to various silver coins and soon after to nearly all gold and silver coins, though this practice disappeared completely for a time. Finally on February 12, 1873, congress passed an act stipulating that the phrase must appear on all U.S. coins, which has continued to this day, excepting one mistake in 2007. That year the Philadelphia Mint accidentally released a batch of one dollar coins that didn’t have “E Pluribus Unum” on them. Obviously these coins are now collector’s items.
- E pluribus unum was officially replaced as the motto of the U.S. when, in 1956, Congress passed an act making “In God We Trust” the official motto.
- On the reverse side of the Great Seal, while not actually cut on the physical seal itself, there is an unfinished pyramid with an eye in a triangle at the top, as you’ll see on the back of the one dollar bill since the 1930s. The pyramid is meant to signify strength and duration. The 13 levels signify the 13 original states. The eye is the “Eye of Providence” watching over the U.S. and supposedly approving of what it does.
- On the back of the seal, you’ll also find two mottoes, Annuit cœptis and Novus ordo seclorum. Annuit cœptis more or less means “approved of (our) undertakings”, combining with the Eye implying that Providence approves of what the U.S. does. The Novus ordo seclorum means “a new order of the ages”.
- This latter Novus ordo seclorum,”a new order of the ages”, is sometimes misinterpreted as “A New World Order” and is occasionally given sinister meaning in this way by Christian conspiracy theorists. In fact, this is just borrowed from Virgil and, ironically enough, some Christians, particularly in medieval times, interpreted this particularly poem as describing the coming of Christ, not a sinister government empowered by Satan. Charles Thomson, who was the Latin expert that proposed this phrase, stated to Congress that he meant this to signify “the beginning of the new American Era”.
- The idea that the Eye of Providence showed a Masonic influence in the formation of the United States isn’t accurate *looks disapprovingly at National Treasure*. The Eye wasn’t adopted by the Masons commonly until 1797. Where the Eye of Providence was significantly more popular at the time of the creation of the seal was among Christians, who had been using it since the Middle Ages. Further, the only known member of the Freemasons to be involved with the creation of the Seal, Benjamin Franklin, had every one of his seal design ideas rejected, excepting that there should be a back to the seal.
- The Eye of Providence is also often misinterpreted by certain Christian conspiracy theorists as being sinister in nature, with many suggesting it is the eye of Satan. In fact, as noted, it had long been used by Christians up to that point as the eye of God, so quite the opposite of sinister from the perspective of Christians at the time the seal was created.
- The oldest known case of the exact phrase E pluribus unum being used appeared in a briefly run periodical called Gentleman’s Journal, that ran from 1692-1694 and likely inspired The Gentlemen’s Magazine to use the phrase.
- The original committee to design the U.S. seal included Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. They later consulted with Pierre-Eugène Ducimetière and their initial designs were not the ones ultimately used.
- Franklin’s design had Moses extending his hand over the sea, causing the waters to fall and overwhelm Pharaoh. He also had rays from a pillar of fire in the clouds landing upon Moses to signify God’s blessing. He then suggested the official U.S. motto be: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” Once again demonstrating that by today’s standards, we’d call him an extremist terrorist. 😉
- Jefferson’s design was also religious in nature, depicting the Children of Israel in the wilderness.
- Adams took a different route, depicting the “Judgment of Hercules”, where Hercules must choose between an easy, self-indulgent path or a difficult path where he must serve others.
- The final design for the seal borrowed from ideas developed by three different committees and was submitted to Congress for approval on June 20, 1782. The parts of the design included from the first committee was the E Pluribus Unum text; the Eye of Providence in a triangle; and the 1776 Roman numerals. The rest of their design was thrown out. The parts included from the second committee were the thirteen red and white stripes; the blue shield; the 13 stars surrounded by clouds; and the olive branch and arrows. The third committee contributed the eagle (not originally a bald eagle), and the unfinished pyramid. Charles Thomson then put it all together, switching the eagle to be a bald eagle, then adding the Latin phrases Annuit Cœptis and Novus Ordo Seclorum on the back.
- The official seal of the United States is kept by the Secretary of State and is used to authenticate various documents.
- So far the Great Seal has been replaced six times in the history of the U.S., with a new one engraved once the old one gets too worn to be used.
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