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Civics lesson: Why did the Founding Fathers want a Latin phrase on my American nickel?

UPDATED: Fri., March 26, 2021

This is a handout photo of a rare 1913 Liberty Head nickel, one of five in the world. Like most modern American coins, the nickel displayed “e pluribus unum.”  (AP Photo/Bowers and Merena Galleries)
This is a handout photo of a rare 1913 Liberty Head nickel, one of five in the world. Like most modern American coins, the nickel displayed “e pluribus unum.” (AP Photo/Bowers and Merena Galleries)
By Daisy Zavala For The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: The nation’s first motto was “E pluribus unum.” What does that mean?

If you really look at the tails side of any coin, you will notice a small engraving of the Latin phrase e pluribus unum.

The phrase translated into English means “out of many, one.” It represents the underlying idea that the United States came to be one nation after the colonies joined together, creating a collective American identity.

In 1776, after gaining independence from Great Britain, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin proposed “E pluribus unum” to be the motto of the first great Seal of the U.S. and it was approved by Congress in 1782. But the phrase has been around longer than that.

Even though the phrase was on the Great Seal and on coins, it remained unofficially the motto of the U.S. It wasn’t until 1956 that Congress made “In God We Trust” the country’ official motto, which you can spot on American currency, including the heads side of coins.

The Latin phrase also conveys that the United States is composed from diverse groups of people who together create a cohesive identity.

The history of the U.S. is riddled with oppression of Indigenous, immigrants and Black people. Although the concept of diversity was vocally appreciated, many laws and tactics were employed to subjugate minorities in the U.S.

Scott Lemieux, assistant teaching professor of political science at the University of Washington, referenced historian Gary Wills, who said that running people out of town on a rail is as American as declaring unalienable rights. Mobs in the 18th and 19th century would attack people by making them straddle a fence rail on their shoulders and parading them around town or left outside city limits. This punishment was often used to force an individual to conform to the community or leave.

Diversity doesn’t always come with equal citizenship.

When people form homogeneous societies, the people who don’t fit in are at risk of being disadvantaged and oppressed, while people who belong to the majority group will reap the benefits, Lemieux said.

Classical theories of democracy assumed that it would only work if the people formed a homogeneous community where everyone had a common heritage and set of values.

But James Madison had argued that the ethnic, religious and geographic diversity of the people in the U.S. was an advantage to democracy.

Conversations about the importance of diversity to the U.S. are still central to politics today. Diversity brings about a vast array of perspectives and ideas that contribute to the fabric of society. E pluribus unum captures that sentiment. And while the meaning of the phrase is an aspiration that is hard to realize completely, Lemieux said, it captures the reality and value of a diverse set of people coming together to form one nation.

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