In 1782, E plurbus unum was adopted by an Act of Congress as the motto for the Seal of the United States and has been used on coins and paper money since 1795.
In 1956, at the height of the Cold War and the Red Scare, Congress passed a law that elevated in God we trust to the status of the “official” US motto. Two years earlier, Congress had added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. The changes targeted the official Communist disdain for religious belief.
In God we trust
A Baptist minister wrote the first version of the Pledge for an 1892 Columbus Day observance in Boston. By 1942, many schools obliged students to recite the Pledge each school day. Jehovah’s Witnesses challenged such school requirements because they violated the Biblical injunction against venerating man-made objects. (Leviticus 26:1)
In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Witnesses on the grounds that the free-speech principle dictates that no schoolchild should be compelled to recite the Pledge.
In God we trust appeared on a US 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 victory and peace, may the Heaven 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.
E pluribus unum
E pluribus unum 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 had come to these shores: England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Holland, and Germany. No African countries are in the list because the founders did not count Africans as colonists.
The motto is now interpreted as a description of the multi-national origin of the US population.
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 law behind it, but it has been, and remains a familiar and apt motto of the United States.