“E Pluribus Unum” is a Latin phrase meaning “out of many, one” or, more simply, “one out of many.” The thirteen-letter motto is included in the Great Seal of the United States, which was instituted as a country in 1776. This is the year in which the U.S. declared independence from Great Britain and the thirteen original colonies united to form a new country. The meaning of the phrase relates to the thirteen colonies coming together to form a single cohesive nation, and it is no coincidence that the number of colonies (thirteen) is mirrored by the number of letters in the Latin phrase.
The reverse side of the Seal is used as the United States’ National Coat of Arms. It contains the phrase “Novus Ordo Seclorum,” which is Latin for “a new order of the ages.”
The Meaning of the Phrase is Reflected in the Design of the Great Seal of the United States
The idea of thirteen colonies coming together to create a single new nation is at the core of the meaning of “E Pluribus Unum.” Interestingly enough, this meaning is also reflected in the design of the Seal. The number thirteen, symbolizing the thirteen original states, is a recurring motif. Not only is the Latin phrase itself thirteen characters, but if you take a careful look at the Seal, you will notice that there are thirteen stripes on the shield, a crest of thirteen stars above the eagle’s head, and thirteen arrows in the eagle’s talon. Later editions of the Seal also depict thirteen olives and thirteen leaves on the olive branch held by the eagle.
History of the Motto and the Seal
Upon declaring independence from Great Britain, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson ( also the authors of the U.S. Declaration of Independence) formed a committee to design the Great Seal of the United States. Having little experience in design and heraldry, the three men sought help from Pierre Eugene du Simitiere, a Swiss-born artist, American patriot, and member of the American Philosophical Society. Eugene du Simitiere subsequently worked as an adviser and artistic consultant for the committee. He is credited with submitting the first proposal for the Great Seal back in 1776.
The Latin motto “E Pluribus Unum” was in the original version of the Seal. The motto was likely inspired by the phrase “We Are One” that had appeared on the Continental currency (known as “Continentals”) first issued by the United States Continental Congress when the Revolutionary War began in 1775. That original currency was designed by Benjamin Franklin and included thirteen rings, each bearing the name of one of the original thirteen colonies.
Two more committees were convened in subsequent years, and each developed different iterations of the Great Seal. Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson used ideas from each of the three committees to develop the final design. He is responsible for incorporating the American bald eagle, the chevron pattern to the vertical stripes underneath the eagle, and the crest of thirteen stars above the bird. Thomson kept the motto “E Pluribus Unum” from the original design.
Though created in 1776, the Great Seal of the U.S. was not used publicly until 1782. And it was not until September 15, 1989, that the United States Congress declared the design and motto to be the official Seal of the new nation. The version of the Seal currently used by the U.S. Department of State has remained virtually unchanged since the official 1989 design.
Where Else Has This Phrase Been Used?
Pierre Eugene du Simitiere, the Swiss-American consultant who submitted the original version of the seal back in 1776, likely took the Latin motto “E Pluribus Unum” from a magazine published in London. It was called The Gentleman’s Magazine and was quite popular among the elite and highly educated members of British society. That magazine bears the same Latin motto on its front cover, likely as an allusion to the fact that its stories came from articles first published in other newspapers. Gentleman’s Magazine likely adopted the phrase from yet another similar publication called The Gentleman’s Journal, which ran briefly from 1692 to 1694. The Gentleman’s Magazine itself stopped using the phrase around 1833.
The Latin motto is also embossed on the U.S. dollar coin that first came into circulation in 1795, and has appeared on the reverse side of one dollar bills since 1935.