As we observe the Fourth of July holiday, Dr. Marc Gorelick, president and CEO, shares his thoughts on the motto of the United States, “E pluribus unum,” and the goals of freedom and equality that unite us as Americans, regardless of our backgrounds.
E pluribus unum: From many, one. This has been the motto of the United States almost since we declared independence from Great Britain. It originally referred to the combining of the 13 original American colonies into a single new nation. But it also calls to mind the way the U.S. is different from other countries, being defined not by birth, or language, or race, or religion, but by a shared set of ideas: freedom, equality, human rights. From many nations, one new nation.
Throughout our history, and especially in the present moment, we have had to confront the ways in which our reality falls far short of our ideals. We recognize how concepts like “freedom” and “equality” and “rights” have been applied at best imperfectly and unevenly. We learn that important figures in our history, including the founders, were flawed people (often deeply so), requiring us to re-evaluate their legacies by seeing their contributions in light of their sins. We must acknowledge that the material wealth we enjoy as a country arose in large part as a result of oppression and exploitation of Black people and indigenous people and people of color, and that that material wealth is still distributed inequitably. All of this highlights the potential divisions implied in the word “pluribus.”
And yet, there is an “unum.” The ideas of freedom and equality and rights are what unite us. They literally define what it means to be an American. There is no American language, or religion, or ethnicity. If you are born here, you are a citizen, period, regardless of any of those characteristics. And if you immigrate, as so many still hope to do, you only need swear allegiance to the laws of the country (and you can do it on any holy book you choose, or none at all). As Americans, we may not all yet share the reality of those ideals, but we share the aspiration. We hope for, and see the possibility of, a place where “all … are created equal,” where our “inalienable rights … of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” are universally recognized, where we truly have “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” The desire to make these ideals into reality — reality for all — are what inspire so many of us to vote, to protest, to enter government or community service. Our lived experiences are different, but our aspirational goals bring us together.
I have to admit that I have not always been the biggest July 4 fan; I’ve tended to focus on the ways we have not lived up to our rhetoric. But this year I want to focus on the potential. Let us not lose this opportunity. Let us bring our diverse perspectives, experiences, and talents together in a common, unified drive to truly realize the dreams of freedom and equality. E pluribus unum.