[This essay was first printed in a little-known monthly journal called

The Freeman, vol 45 #2, February, 1995, p.77ff, published by the

Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, NY 10533.]

 

 

 

                        E Pluribus Unum

 

      It is futile to argue about the proper translation of the

motto, E Pluribus Unum; the Latin used there is ambiguous, as

befits a motto, and it is in the nature of the Latin language to

be a bit cryptic in its prepositions and verbs.  I myself have no

doubt that the motto refers to the States, which is to say that

where there had been a certain 13 colonies (in America) they were

now become a single nation.  To some degree -- though I doubt this

-- the motto might have meant also that various ethnicities were

combined, as that Pennsylvania had a large German component and

New York Dutch, and that Calvinists were to live peaceably with

Wesleyans.  Possibly, but all this was minor compared to the real

problem of 1789, which was to combine thirteen quarreling indepen-

dent States into one nation, with a common policy in foreign and

interstate trade, a common defense, a guaranteed respect for one

another's laws, and so on.

 

      That was 200 years ago, and much has changed since.  If

today some choose to translate "E Pluribus Unum” as "diversity

within unity", and use the Latin pluribus to sanction our

current celebration of the diverse cultures visible in American

life, that is agreeable to me and most other Americans, for it

certainly does not deny the union of the States as well.  But we

must not forget the "Unum" that lies behind the Union that Lincoln

fought to preserve.  If pluribus is reinterpreted to refer to the

multitude of diverse cultures present here, as well as the mul-

titude, now fifty, of States, then unum correspondingly must refer

to some unity in our common culture, as well as the legal union of

our States. 

 

      In what, then, consists this unity in our culture?  What

exactly is it that unites us, and what is it that should unite us?

Are they the same thing?  Are they the right thing?  And -- are

they enough?

 

      Lincoln worried about that last question.  In his Gettysburg

Address he characterized the Civil War as testing "whether any

nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."  That is,

conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all

men are created equal.  That's all.  He did not say "conceived by

Englishmen," or "conceived by Judeo-Christian Deists," though one

could argue some such proposition.  He did not say, "dedicated to

the proposition that all white males, native-born, 21 years old,

and demonstrably responsible and literate should have an equal

vote," though that, too, was a proposition most of the Founders

would have approved. Lincoln knew that these details of our

history were only incidents, perhaps necessary or perhaps only

accidentally true in their time, but certainly not the essence.

He kept it simple because a battle over a couple of the more

important details was exactly what he was commemorating that day,

and he knew others must follow, not only in that great civil war

of 1863 but into the indefinite future.  Not that such "battles"

were necessarily to be sanguinary, but merely inevitable; yet to

bring them on prematurely would be foolish.  With Matthew he might

say, "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."  In our system

it is best to disagree only when the choice is forced, meanwhile

celebrating such agreement our culture already enjoys.

 

      In Lincoln's time, as at the time of the nation's founding

four score and seven years earlier, there were very few cultures

in the world dedicated to the proposition that all men are created

equal, or to any proposition very near it.  In 1776 again, there

were few societies valuing liberty over other values, and even

fewer enjoying anything very near it.  Today there are more of

both, though not very many; and one reason there are as many as

there are is the example of the United States of America.  And one

reason the United States of America succeeded in institutionaliz-

ing liberty and equality in 1776 was that its English heritage,

vague and self-contradictory as it often was in detail, included

the Magna Charta and other precedents of English law, and an

associated philosophical tradition culminating with Hobbes and

Locke.  Nor did the British heritage come to a stop with Indepen-

dence, for the precepts of Hume, Smith, Burke and Mill mingled

wonderfully, as the years rolled down towards Lincoln, with those

of our own founders.

 

      It is true that Americans do not officially celebrate Magna

Charta, Guy Fawkes' Day and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but

that does not put these things outside our common culture; they

were important presences here in 1776, as was the enormous heritage

of the Common Law by which, fundamentally, we still order our

responsibilities.  The colonies of Spain and France in America did

not begin with any such law and tradition, and the sad later

history of those colonies when they became independent has never

stopped exhibiting the difference.

 

      This is not to say that a "British-American" (to use the

repellent jargon of our times) is any more real an American than

any other kind.  We must all be grateful for the English history

behind our nation's founding, but we of the year 1995, whatever

our lineal descent, cannot take credit for the concept of trial by

a jury of one's peers, any more than for the discoveries of Isaac

Newton.  We can take credit, if we deserve it, for maintaining

that legal principle, and for understanding and using the law of

gravitation, but not because they were made by our actual

ancestors, let alone by ourselves in the present century. 

 

      My own father and mother immigrated from Poland threescore

and ten years ago, and the Russian Poland of their youth most

assuredly had no tradition of liberty or equality, either one,

whatever definition you might give the words.  That is why they

came here: not to import the prejudices and traditions they had

grown up among, but to adopt new ones, to adopt a new language and

a new attitude and whatever else was required to become American.

Of course they brought with them some of their own previous

culture; no adult is born yesterday.  Even their children --

myself and my brothers -- value some of what was brought from

Poland, and from lands more ancient still: for our tradition

teaches that our lineal ancestors, under Moses' leadership and by

the benevolence of God, were brought out of slavery in Egypt.  We

are asked by that tradition to celebrate the Exodus, and be

grateful for it, but not to take credit for it, or for The Ten

Commandments later given to Moses on Sinai.  Such traditions are

borrowed by me, not born into me.  They can be borrowed by anyone

with wit to use them well; they are no more and no less mine and

my father's than the tradition of The Common Law, which is not to

be found in the Books of Moses, but which my father accepted for

us when he arrived here, and freely chose to live by.

 

      My father's culture included much else before he came to

America.  His own father, indeed the whole Jewish part of his

native town, were adherents of a religious sect of a particularly

pious, intolerant, and Puritanical nature.  For gloomy super-

stition and repression of women, for example, the Hasidim of

Nasielsk had no peers.  Is that, too, part of the ethnicity I am

supposed to celebrate as part of this multicultural society?

Excuse me; I'll have the Magna Charta instead.  It's English,

maybe, but it's mine.  Hasidim are more free under English (or

American) law than Americans would be under Hasidic law; we intend

to maintain it so.

 

      What then of our ethnic multiplicity?  Are we supposed to

reject it?  Deny it?  Is Unum the only important part of the motto

on our nickels and quarters?  Of course not.  As it is with me, so

it is with everyone:  We all have traditions and values and attitudes

that we cannot forget, and that we do not necessarily hold in

common with our neighbors here in America.  We have every right

to enjoy them, provided they respect the common weal.  Many of

these cultural values are associated with the name of some country,

empire, language, religion or caste that once governed our

lineal ancestors.  America is in fact the place where private

citizens are enabled to retain and enjoy these things in peace and

mutual respect better than in any other country; we have been a

leader in this regard.

 

      But there are certain traditions that we must ourselves

maintain, and not merely respect in others.  Traditions that we

can not reject if we are to call ourselves Americans, even if they

conflict with everything held valuable in some tradition of our

own lineal ancestors.  The rule of law and equality before the law

cannot be abridged, even if it was our ancestors' custom to exempt

noblemen from the courts and laws that governed commoners, whether

in 18th Century England or 19th Century Russia or 20th Century

Arabia.  Equality, too, is American, and it must be accepted by any

immigrant who would become American.  We must deny the immi-

grant's "right" to bring with him a plan for sabotaging these two

American values, whatever might have been the practice of his own

forbears.  Not all values are equal and not all cultures have been

benign.

 

      Lincoln was right to limit his catalogue of American ideals

to two -- liberty and equality -- for that too is American:  to

limit as little as possible the values our citizens -- if they are

to be Americans -- are asked to hold and exercise.  And even then

we do not compel belief, for even that much would violate our

principle of liberty.  There are in fact many zealots among us who

would reduce America to a theocracy if they had their way.  We do

not cut off their ears; we only ask that, apart from what they say

and write, they will in their actions obey our laws.  We hope that

with time they will learn better.  There are also among us those

who would prefer an America cleansed of blacks, or of Jews, and

who say so.  We do not cut out their tongues or sell them into

slavery; we only ask that, apart from what they say and write,

they will in their actions obey our laws.  We hope that with time

they will learn better.

 

      Liberty and equality have their expression in the rule of

law, and this fabric of freedom has been in large part forged in

the history of England, but while for this we must be grateful to

the England that did this for us it does not follow that those of

us of English lineage are any better or more important than the

rest.  Nor, on the other hand, does it follow that in some anxiety

for "equality" among cultures we must downplay or deny the English

origins of our polity. 

 

      True, we have had to reject much of English heritage too.

We allow no princes or viscounts here, and we do not kidnap drunk-

en sailors for our Navy, nor do we exile thieves to a 10,000 mile

distant colony, or place debtors in prison.  These all were Eng-

lish customs as little as two hundred years ago.  Thus we have

been selective in our borrowing from the British heritage. (So

have the British!)  But though we have rejected some of it, we can

not deny that what we have selected in law and politics owes more

to Britain than to Africa or China.

 

      To say that our notion of liberty derives mainly from

Britain is to simplify, for Britain itself had borrowed from an-

cient Greece and Rome.  Similarly, our principle of equality is

also partly rooted in an older source: the Levantine conception of

a universal God to whom we are all, equally, his children.  But

the English were peculiarly successful in developing both ideas in

practical terms, forming a solid base for the great American

experiment.

 

      At first glance, E Pluribus Unum and the mention of liberty

and equality speak nothing of the artistic, scientific, or other

intellectual or sentimental features of our culture.  They speak

of government and of rights and duties of a civic nature, but not

about music, food, mathematics and sports.  In these domains we

are entitled to be as diverse as we please; but it should be

recognized that this entitlement too is American.  There are

cultures where the all styles, yes, even in music, food, mathemat-

ics and sports, are dictated by an authority that will allow no

deviation.  Not so in America.  We may respect diverse cultures in

most respects, and indeed we have borrowed from all of them, but

we must reject as insufferable those which would compel particular

cultural choices outside the domain of civil law, for that would

be to deny our liberty. 

 

      In short, we absolutely reject that part of any tradition

that would deny equality or liberty, but not because they are

merely alien in the sense of being current some place outside our

geographic borders.  Traditions subversive of liberty or equality

are outside our borders in a deeper sense: they are alien to our

spirit.

 

      To paraphrase another American, we count it self-evident

that it is better to be free than to be enslaved, and better to be

equal under the law than governed by laws depending on class, race

or religion.  It is the definition of Americans, that we were

conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men

are created equal.  There is within our borders an enormous

cultural diversity, which we not only tolerate, but enjoy and

celebrate -- but always within these two restrictions of peculiar-

ly British origin.  Each of us is entitled to love, despise or be

indifferent to Italian opera, Buddhism or the Theory of Relativi-

ty; there is no Principle of Multiculturalism that compels our

allegiance to any of this.  But any principle that conflicts with

Lincoln's definition of America is not ours to reject, for that

would be impossible to reconcile with America as an idea. 

 

Ralph A. Raimi

1992