All Commentary
Wednesday, February 1, 1995

E Pluribus Unum

What Principles Unite Americans?

Professor Raimi teaches mathematics at the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York.

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 13 quarreling independent 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 multitude, 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.

What Unites Us?

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.

Liberty and Justice for All

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 institutionalizing 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 Independence, 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.

Our European Heritage

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 superstition 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.

Select the Right Traditions

But there are certain traditions that we must ourselves maintain, and not merely respect in others. Traditions that we cannot 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 eighteenth-century England or nineteenth-century Russia or twentieth-century Arabia. Equality, too, is American, and it must be accepted by any immigrant who would become American. We must deny the immigrant’s “right” to bring with him a plan for sabotaging these two American values, whatever might have been the practice of his own forebears. 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.

The Rule of Law

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 drunken sailors for our Navy, nor do we exile thieves to a 10,000-mile distant colony, or place debtors in prison. These all were English 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 cannot 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 ancient 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 all styles, yes, even in music, food, mathematics, 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 peculiarly British origin. Each of us is entitled to love, despise, or be indifferent to Italian opera, Buddhism, or the Theory of Relativity; 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.