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E Pluribus Unum and the Great Seal

What is the meaning behind the motto?

By:  |  September 24, 2019  |    639 Words

Have you ever wondered where we get the words and phrases on our money? “In God We Trust” can be seen on today’s currency, but it wasn’t always so. Our Founding Fathers worked to come up with a motto that would unite the new country. A committee was tasked by Congress with the duty of coming up with the special phrase. At that time, the Latin language was more commonly studied, and so, on July 4, 1776, the committee went to work and came up with the motto e pluribus unum.

Pluribus translates to “plural” in English, while unum means “unit.” The phrase describes an action: Many uniting into one. However, the most used translations are “From Many, One,” or “Out of Many, One.” At the time, there were 13 independent colonies in America, so uniting all the colonies to act as one new nation was the goal behind the motto.

Sketch by Pierre du Simitiere

Sketch by Pierre du Simitiere

Another meaning exists behind the phrase – the idea of uniting people from different countries together in one new country. This interpretation is more familiar to a modern audience based on the history of immigration into the U.S. during the 19th and early 20th centuries – when centers like Ellis Island processed millions of immigrants who left their old homes and settled in America, merging into one nation and a single, unique culture.

It Wasn’t Always the Eagle

The motto e pluribus unum appears on the U.S. great seal, held in the beak of a bald eagle. The eagle was not always the symbol for the U.S., however. At the same time as the Founders were deciding on a motto, they were also coming up with a seal to represent the nation.

Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were given the task of designing a seal. They had their own suggestions, but they also hired an artist, named Pierre Eugene du Simitiere, to assist them. Du Simitiere had his own ideas, and he focused on the idea of unity in his design.

Historian Benson J. Lossing's interpretation of du Simitiere's design

Historian Benson J. Lossing’s interpretation of du Simitiere’s seal design

He used the motto of e pluribus unum, and illustrated what this meant by drawing 13 small shields, each with initials representing one of the 13 colonies of America. In the center was a larger shield which depicted six symbols for “the Countries from which these States have been peopled.”

These icons were:

  • The rose for England.
  • The thistle for Scotland.
  • A harp for Ireland.
  • The fleur-de-lis for France.
  • A lion for Holland.
  • The Imperial Eagle for Germany.

In his seal design, du Simitiere depicted the union of the colonies, as well as the peoples from the “old world” joining together in the new. The image also showed the figure of Liberty and an American soldier standing underneath the “eye of providence.”

The group submitted the proposed design to Congress on August 20, 1776, but it was not approved. The phrase e pluribus unum was adopted, however. Other committees tried their hand at designing a seal, but in the end Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson created the final great seal depicting the American bald eagle holding in its beak a scroll that displays the motto.

U.S. Great Seal

U.S. Great Seal

The Great Seal

The shield on Thomson’s design also echoes the theme of uniting the 13 colonies. It has 13 vertical stripes to represent the original colonies which became states. It has seven white (argent) stripes, six red (gules) stripes standing for the states, and a blue (azure) top section, to represent the chief (the federal government). Conversely, the American flag has seven red and six white stripes.

It wasn’t until 1956 that Congress approved the newest motto, “In God We Trust.”

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