Adams Family, Our Glorious National Heritage

Motto Schmotto

Well, you learn something new every day.

In this case, that the unofficial motto of the U.S. — E Pluribus Unum — comes from either Virgil … or the late 18th-century version of Newsweek for the bewigged set.

At least, so claims a (fairly) reputable source:

E Pluribus Unum. — A Latin phrase meaning “Out of many, one,” or “One of many.” It alludes to the formation of one Federal Government out of several independent States. It is the motto of the United States, having been selected by a committee composed of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. They made up their report on a design for a motto and great seal on Aug. 10, 1776. The phrase is probably derived from “Moretum,” a Latin poem by Virgil. It was also the motto of the Gentleman’s Magazine, which was quite popular in the Colonies at the time the selection was made. It first appeared on coin issued by New Jersey in 1786.

~James D. Richardson, ed. A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1908, Volume XI and Index (NY, 1909), p. 114.

Needless to say, this is not mentioned in the Wikipedia entry.

So much for all the heavy drama about the deep meaning of the phrase, allusions to ancient republics, eh? Suck on that, Nicholas Cage. If this is right, the Benster, TJ, and Johnny A. ripped it off from the masthead of the magazine sitting in the privy. Pragmatic revolution, indeed.

Now, I don’t know much stock to put in this explanation — Richardson is the standard ref. work for primary texts, but not for interpretations, like this — and I don’t really care to kill an afternoon running it down (though if someone else were to…). But it appeals to my sense of the period. These guys were all about bricolage. I particularly like how it implies that they got their erudition second-hand (still provincials after all these years).

Anyhow, it’s still a good motto, no matter the source.

Image cite: Adam Polselli, “E Pluribus Unum,” Flickr, CC License

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