What My Dad Found in the Great Seal of the United States
My dad died a couple of years ago. To say we didn’t always see eye-to-eye at times is an understatement. Our differences, however, weren’t on the political front. A fellow West Pointer, historian and teacher of international relations, my dad helped to shape many of my political viewpoints. Through the years, he emphasized one particular theme often. My dad believed the guidance we find on one side of the Great Seal of the United States, “E Pluribus Unum,” embodies the most important strength of America. Literally translated, this means, “From Many One.” If you never noticed the Great Seal before, it is on the back of every dollar bill in use since 1935. The words “E Pluribus Unum” are on the banner held in the eagle’s beak.
On July fourth 1776, congress authorized the creation of the Great Seal, our national emblem, and appointed the first of three committees that would take six years to finalize its design. Many of our founding fathers worked on these committees. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams comprised the first. The guidance they chose to include on our national emblem is significant and lasting.
From 1892 to 1924, America experienced a massive influx of European immigrants through Ellis Island, the “Gateway to America.” The way these people, with all their disparate languages and cultures, integrated themselves into America represents the ideal of “From Many One.” My own German ancestors had immigrated to New York only a few years earlier. Listening to a cabbie from India speak of finding a husband for his daughter back in his home village, it is easy to imagine the process “From Many One” has somehow broken down. The sight of a Muslim woman in full burka, or a Mexican-American waving a Mexican flag at a soccer game where the Mexican national team is playing the American national team might raise the same sentiments.
Especially in the political arena, this American ideal, “From Many One,” seems an impossible dream, a fading Camelot that never really existed except in the imagination. Today, we Americans divide ourselves politically by race, by religion, by ethnic origin, by political persuasion, and further, by belief, into a myriad of interest groups. In America, heralded as a great melting pot of ideas and cultures, sometimes it seems cultures don’t melt, ideas don’t blend, and the pot boils over. One has only to watch Sunday morning TV, or walk by a newsstand, to notice advocates on all sides of issues clawing at each other. Can it be that it has always been this way? Have Americans always torn at each other’s throats in so unseemly a fashion?
As a person who became an adult during the 1960’s my observation is yes, it has always been this way. The revolution that gave birth to America tore families apart, and less than half of those living in America at the time supported it. That America fought a bloody civil war in the 1860’s indicates how divided “We the People” were then. Few recall, even after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the congressional vote to enter to enter WWII passed by a single vote. Apparently, even the “Greatest Generation” shouldered the responsibility of defeating Hitler more divisively than history recalls.
My dad saw all this and it troubled him, as it troubles me. However, he took a longer view, one I try to emulate. He recalled that it took generations for the European immigrants to integrate themselves into America. Little Italys and Irish communities still stand alongside newer little Koreas, little Vietnams, and Chinatowns. Swedish and Norwegian flags still hang from homes in my hometown of Seattle. That Indian cab driver’s son is a UW graduate and a Microsoft engineer, his daughter is a UW graduate and a registered nurse. Who knows how “integrated” into mainstream America their children will be? The flag-waving Mexican’s kids speak English (and Spanish) and watch American TV, and that Muslim woman deserves the right to worship and dress any way she chooses, a right guaranteed to all Americans, bought with generations of American blood. The process, “From Many One,” takes time. It is happening before our eyes, albeit slowly.
Dad also realized “From Many One” did not mean to make us all the same, homogenized into a single set of beliefs, except with regard to the principles of the constitution. It is in these all Americans must come together as one: freedom of speech, assembly, worship, equality before the law. Sometimes defending these freedoms takes strange forms, like recognizing the right of the truly offensive to burn the American flag as a form of free speech, like defending the rights of protesters who spit at you as you march off to war. The true essence of America is respect for the rights of others to dress, live, worship and express opinions that do not agree with our own ways.
American politics is a full contact sport. We don’t have to go far to find people who disagree vehemently with one or another of our views. However, on this special day, September 11, 2011, while we remember the attacks that brought us together in anger, in grief, and in shock, let us reaffirm that we will defend the rights of those who disagree with us. They are our acquaintances, friends, neighbors and family. The freedoms we cherish make America wonderfully messy. My dad would be the first to encourage us to advocate strongly for our own positions. Today, however, he would probably want us all to take time from polarizing rants to stand on the middle ground where many become one.