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E Pluribus Unum and the Great Seal

What is the meaning behind the motto?

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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 hard to come up with a motto that would unite the new country and convey a special meaning to its people. A committee appointed by Congress was tasked with the duty of coming up with the special phrase. At that time, the Latin language was commonly used, 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 states, so uniting all states to act as one nation was the goal behind the motto.

Benson J. Lossing’s 1776 seal design.

It Wasn’t Always the Eagle

The American bald eagle was not always the symbol for the US. At the same time as the committee was deciding on a motto, it was also coming up with a shield to represent the nation, and choosing what would go on that shield.

The original suggestions included six symbols for “the Countries from which these States have been peopled.” The symbols included:

  • 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.

Around the shield were 13 smaller shields linked together, each with initials representing one of the 13 independent states of America at that time. The committee submitted the proposed new design for the Great Seal to Congress on Aug. 20, 1776, but it was not approved. The motto, e pluribus unum, however, was accepted in 1782. Charles Thomson created the final Great Seal depicting the American bald eagle holding in his beak a scroll which displays the motto.

The Great Seal

The shield on Thomson’s design  has 13 vertical stripes to represent the original 13 states supporting a chief (the federal government), which we still see today. It has seven white (argent) stripes, six red (gules) stripes standing for the states, and a blue (azure) top section, to represent the chief. Conversely, the American flag has seven red and six white stripes.

Historically, shields had two figures standing on either side, working together to support the central shield. Thomson did not want two figures to feature on this newest shield design. He said, “The Escutcheon [shield] is born on the breast of an American Eagle without any other supporters, to denote that the United States of America ought to rely on their own Virtue.”

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

Kelli Ballard

National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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