This Day in History: The origins of “E Pluribus Unum”

On this day in 1776, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin propose “E Pluribus Unum” as a national motto to be used on the Great Seal of the United States.

On July 4, 1776, these three men were appointed to a committee to “bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America.” They presented their report to the Continental Congress on August 20, 1776. Most of their proposals were not used in the final design for the seal, but two items were kept: the Eye of Providence and the Latin motto “E Pluribus Unum.”

What made them use “E Pluribus Unum”? The question has sparked a great deal of speculation, but it appears that the motto came from an old British magazine called the “Gentleman’s Magazine.” The magazine was widely read and the phrase would have been recognized. Moreover, Benjamin Franklin’s life as a publisher would have made him particularly familiar with it.

The Gentlemen’s Magazine used the phrase in an annual volume that compiled stories from its twelve monthly editions. The Magazine posted the phrase along with a hand holding a nosegay of flowers. Each flower in the bouquet was different and unique, yet they came together as one lovely bouquet.

What a fitting picture of America. It’s easy to see how our founding generation would have appreciated it. Each state, region, subculture, and industry presents a different type of flower—as do different opinions, beliefs, and religions. Together, the varied group of flowers makes a stunning bouquet.

America operates best when we remember that we don’t all need to be roses. Daisies, tulips, marigolds . . . . any number of other flowers are also very beautiful.

E pluribus unum, by the way, also explains why the founding generation created the Electoral College. Roses don’t get to rule the day, just because there are more of them. Daisies, tulips, and marigolds are part of the bouquet, too.