What Does E pluribus unum Mean?

 The phase E pluribus unum represents one of the most important ideas involved in the concept of America. But many Americans do not understand the phrase or its importance to our society. This lack of understanding and the lack of the concept’s practical application cause many to be among the poorest Americans.


E pluribus unum is found on the Seal of the United States. Alternate translations are “Out of many, one,” “One out of many,” and One from many.” On a practical basis what does this Latin phrase mean to us today? What does it tell us about some of our greatest social challenges?


There are basically two meanings of the phrase. One has to do with there being many states, like Virginia, Oklahoma, etc., that are combined into one single nation, the United States of America. The other meaning suggests that people of many races, religions, ancestries, and cultures can come together to create a single people – us Americans.


To understand these meanings and their importance it is necessary to understand how America is different from other nations. Historically nations were made up of a people that were of one race, practiced one religion, shared one culture, and had one strong, controlling central government. This is the case with many nations today.


Many civil wars being fought today are armed conflicts involving one religious group trying to dominate the government and economy for their benefit against other religious groups. For example, this has been the case in the Middle East for the last 60-plus years.


The concept of America as a government and a society was intended to be different from other nations. Except for the Native Americans that were killed off or marginalized the land that became the United States was a blank tablet. In the beginning the United States somewhat mirrored other nations like those discussed above. But the words in our founding document, The Declaration of Independence, envisioned a very different society. They envisioned a nation of people tolerant of race, religion, culture, and ancestry with all participating equally. Slowly, with steps forward and back, we continue to strive to create one American people mirroring the Declaration’s words.


In many ways we have been quite successful. But many of our social problems stem from our lack of total success in implementing this concept among all of us. Since the mid-1950’s we have made greater progress from a legal standpoint than a practical one. We still have segments of our population that do not equally participate in being among the “one” American people. And their lack of participation is a major factor in their being among the poorest Americans. Let me explain.


Being somewhat Native American and having grown up in Oklahoma, former Indian Territory, it is easy to see that those Native Americans that willingly and actively participate in becoming part of the “one” American people are much better off financially, educationally, and politically than those that actively strive to maintain their original Native culture and lifestyle.


I personally know individuals that are highly successful as Americans that are shunned by family members (mother, father, sisters, brothers, aunts, and uncles) because they are not considered “Indian enough.” Those that are considered to be “not Indian enough” take pride in their Native heritage but have strived to educate themselves and find employment in the mainstream American economy. Their family members that are “Indian enough” are among the poorest Americans living on government handouts, having disenfranchised themselves from participating in the America dream.


I see other groups of Americans following this same pattern and those that are “enough” are also among the poorest Americans.

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© By Joseph L. Bass, EdD and Barbara P. Starkey-Bass - 2016 ABetterSociety1@aol.com