Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NY

Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

That devotion to the theme “E Pluribus Unum,” “out of many, one,” is among the things that are old in the United States of America, there can be no question. Since 1776 the motto has graced the Great Seal of the United States and is on presidential and other major governmental seals. Citizens carry the theme with them when they carry cash. Many thought of it as the motto of the United States, but it got pushed aside by God, as in “In God We Trust,” when Congress made that phrase official. Official or not, its presence on seals and coins, in textbook titles and legal encyclopedia entries, testifies to the fact that, when serious, leaders and ordinary citizens are devoted to keeping this “old thing” current.

The natural question is, “How old is it?” A French citizen, Pierre Eugene du Simitiere, first put it forward. Some trace its presence, but in a different context than the familiar civil one, to a poem by Virgil. Virgil was big in colonial America, drilled into the minds and ears of founders like James Madison by scholar John Witherspoon at Princeton. Madison knew Virgil very well, but leaves no trace that he was influenced by Virgil when he gave attention to this phrase. There is no question that it has resonance in the writings of Aristotle, whom Madison and other founders knew well, and there is much evidence that the idea of “out of many, one” inspired and engrossed many of these founders and their citizen-beneficiaries ever since.

The usual explanation for the ubiquitous presence of “E Pluribus Unum” in national documents is that it captures so well the issues that were a problem for the founders and an inspiration to them and their heirs: how to produce one nation out of thirteen colonies. The addition of each of the next thirty-seven states to the federal whole occasioned fresh inquiry about it, as do the never ending battles between “states’ rights,” the many, and the federal context, the one.

The motto is too appropriate to be left in isolation in the debates over states-and-federal government. So, from the beginning, it has been used analogously for reaches into many aspects of national life. If Forrest McDonald could keep the Latin of “E Pluribus Unum” in that restricted sense, my late colleague Arthur Mann extends it into the spheres of “the many” races, classes, ethnic groups, interest groups, and religion in his The One and the Many: Reflections on the American Identity in 1979. I subtitled The One and the Many with “America’s Struggle for the Common Good” in 1997. Obviously, numbers of us think of the relation of the plures to the unum as basic among the “old things” in national life.

Many theological and philosophical traditions—which means “older things”—go into the reasoning of the founders and go into the thinking of the many of us who reflect on and extend the theme into our time, when all the old issues remain and when there are new resources to meet new needs. This theme also emerges in the election campaigns and the follow-ups in legislative life and in the courts, when considering how state and federal interests conflict, complement each other, or produce a contribution to “the Common Good.”

Among those traditions, America being a scripted and scripture nation, a privileged place would go to the Bible. The colonial leaders often made much of how the twelve tribes of Israel related to Israel as an elect nation, but that motif did not show up much in constitutional debates, however much biblical thought colored many other “old things” in national life. Quite frankly, the Hebrew Scriptures, which they knew as the Old Testament, do not have much substance for people founding a republic, and the Christian New Testament offers even less. So philosophical roots and analogues are more important, since the founders, influenced by the Enlightenment, were often quite at home with wrestlings over this theme in classical and more recent philosophical thought.

Not cited by Madison and his other well-informed colleagues, so far as I can find, is the quintessential, in my view, word of Aristotle, which should qualify as a very important “old thing”:

The error of Socrates must be attributed to the false notion of unity from which he starts. Unity there should be, both of the family and of the state, but in some respects only. For there is a point at which a polis, by advancing in unity, will cease to be a polis, but will none the less come near to losing its essence, and will thus be a worse polis. It is as if you were to turn harmony into mere unison, or to reduce a theme to a single beat. The truth is that the polis is an aggregate of many members.

Aristotle continues:

Is it not obvious, that a state may at length attain such a degree of unity as to be no longer a state?—since the nature of a state is to be a plurality, an intending to greater unity, from being a state, it becomes a family, and from being a family, an individual; for the family may be said to be more one than the state, and the individual than the family. So that we ought not to attain this greatest unity even if we could, for it would be the destruction of the state.

When Madison dealt with faction, interest, and sect, as he did in Federalist No. 10, he chose the word “different” to preface each, as in “different opinions concerning religion,” “different faculties,” “different degrees and kinds of acquiring property,” “different interests and parties,” “attachment to different leaders” and “different classes of legislators.”  All of these show up in every election campaign and are present or implied in most executive, legislative, or judicial acts—just as many of them do at the city council, the Parent-Teacher Association or the school board, and other expressions within public life.

I find corollaries to this reasoning and labeling in, for example, Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Associations,” Edmund Burke’s “Platoons,” and, best, in a Dutch Calvinist thinker who was probably unknown—but, who knows?—to the founders and most leaders who followed them, Johannes Althusius. He saw a republic as an “association of associations,” which he saw in symbiosis.

The problem for lovers of the republic, those who govern it, and those who practice citizenship and pursue the common good, is to be creative about relating stress on “the one” to accent on “the many.” Many citizens today advocate “one” at the expense of the “many,” when they promote theological, philosophical, or political homogeneity, often enforced by law. The historic demands to make America a “Christian Republic” are one illustration of this, and it is posed over against almost anarchic appeals to individualism. The United States of America, in this conception, is an “association of associations,” an “aggregate of aggregates,” a “community of communities,” which remain in tension, if there is to be justice, and find the common good when there are good reasons to put the emphasis on the unum.

In a healthy republic there can never be a final resolution of the tension; it is always in the process of being developed, tested, traded on, and enjoyed. For that reason, I list “E Pluribus Unum” as one of the “old things” that belongs in “the immanent frame.”

[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]