By Jeff Olson
The year 1776 is a notable one in American History, primarily because America declared her independence from the British Crown. Fundamental in the Declaration of Independence is that all men are created equal, possessing unalienable rights which include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These are not conferred upon man by man, but given by God for man and they are not contingent on race, ethnicity, gender, or any other natural inherent distinctions. This principle recognized not only human equality before God and the law but also enhanced opportunity and incentive for people to come to America’s shores where individual liberty through the human spirit would unleash those abilities, gifts, and talents which could allow man to do what he was created to do through personal fulfillment and achievement in family, faith and work, and in serving the common good. This was at the heart of another event which began on July 4 of that year.
According to the July 4, 1776, Journals of Continental Congress, “Resolved, That Dr. Franklin, Mr. J. Adams and Mr. Jefferson, be a committee, to bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America.” As a part of the design for this seal, they chose “E Pluribus Unum” for a national motto. They enlisted the expertise of artist Pierre Eugene Simitiere and on August 20, 1776 submitted to Congress a design which included this motto. Although the design was not accepted, E Pluribus Unum nevertheless was also chosen by the third of the three committees appointed to design the Great Seal over the course of America’s War of Independence. In June 1782, Congress turned the task over to Charles Thomson who incorporated symbolic elements from all three committees with ideas of his own to create the design.
The Latin motto E Pluribus Unum was by no means an original phrase in 1776, as its use could be traced back to ancient Roman days. It means “out of many, one” which historically had several applications. For America, it has represented the rich contributions and assimilation of other peoples into what has been called the great “Melting Pot.” However, this was originally understood to mean not only a blending of many lives but a culture born of the coexistence of unity and individuality.
For many years this was a reality. What gave America cultural cohesiveness was not a common ethnic background but a source of common beliefs – belief in God and belief in principles such as the rule of law, the value of the individual, and the fundamental freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights. America has depended for her very existence on the conviction that we can move beyond only our native cultures and commit ourselves to a unified national vision. Indeed, America has been unique in her character and capacity to accommodate a multitude of nationalities, ethnicities and cultures which could both co-exist and contribute to a developing and overarching American culture. However, this has been changing and at an accelerating rate in recent history.
For some time now many educational institutions have taught that there is no single set of principles that can command allegiance from all people – that all cultures are morally equivalent – there is no such thing as absolute or universal truth – that personal autonomy trumps the common good. What happens when the very concept of truth is splintered into a multitude of ethnic and special interest fragments? Just look around, tune into the news and it becomes immediately quite apparent.
Every political order must rest on a moral order, a shared set of beliefs and values. For America, these came primarily through our foundational Judeo/Christian roots and transcendent principles of truth and justice. When James Russell Lowell, U.S. lawyer, editor and diplomat in the mid-1800s, was asked, “How long will the American Republic last?” he replied, “As long as the ideas of the men who founded it continue dominant.”