E Pluribus Unum and In God We Trust

I don’t care what anybody says–I think that e plurbus unum is as much the motto of the United States as in God we trust. If a foreigner were to ask me to state our national motto, it’s probably the first one I’d think of. But then, I received my elementary schooling before 1956.

It was in 1956, at the height of the Cold War and the (atheistic) Red Scare that Congress passed a law that elevated in God we trust to the status of the “official” U.S. motto.

In God we trust had appeared on a U. S. coin as early as 1864, a reflection of the fears and religious fervor triggered by the War Between the States (1861-1864).

By 1909, the motto was on several coins, but not until 1955–again, a gesture triggered by the Cold War–was a law passed to make the inclusion of the words in God we trust mandatory on all U. S. coinage and paper money.

The phrase occurs in the last stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner:

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”

The Star-spangled Banner was written 1814. The U.S. Navy made use of it as an anthem as early as 1889, but it was not until 1931 that it was adopted as the national anthem.

Our other motto
E pluribus unum is the motto that appears on a scroll in the eagle’s beak on the Great Seal of the United States.

The literal meaning of e pluribus unum is “out of many, one.” The framers of the Constitution were thinking of the thirteen colonies united under one federal government. They may also have been thinking of the six European countries from which the earliest colonists (they didn’t think of counting Africans as colonists, of course) had come to these shores: England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Holland, and Germany. When I was in elementary school, we were taught that it meant all the different immigrants who had assimilated to make one peaceful country out of their many different origins.

Arguing over whether or not E pluribus unum can be called “the motto of the United States” is like arguing that we mustn’t refer to ourselves as Americans because we’re not the only country in North America. Or that we mustn’t call a buffalo a buffalo because it’s “really” a bison.

E pluribus unum may not have a 1956 law behind it, but it has been, and remains a familiar and apt motto of the United States.

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