E Pluribus Unum or out of many, one.
This 13 letter phrase became an official part of the Seal of the Unites States by an Act of Congress in 1782. It was the de facto motto of the United States until Congress officially made In God We Trust the national motto in 1956.
But beyond being simply our unofficial motto, since even before 1782, E Pluribus Unum embodied the very spirit of us as a new country. This simple but profound idea is that we are all many – many different people of different origins, different histories, different religions, different colors, and different races – but all one, the People of the United States.
If you think about how things have been over the last few thousand years, E Pluribus Unum is a pretty radical concept. For most of human history, we have been dividing people into two groups – us or them – and to have a country that recognizes that all of the “thems” are all part of “us,” well, that’s a big idea.
Various religions, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. all recognize some sense of ‘one in the spirit’ as the old hymn says, but E Pluribus Unum is about secular institutions – a government and a county – and that’s a fundamentally different thing.
These types of musings about our national origins and aspirations always seem to obligatorily come forth in newspaper columns such as this one around every July 4th holidays but there have been several things in the news of late that add poignancy.
So, this week when so many of us are relaxing at the beach or on the lake or by the pool, eating and drinking all the appropriate patriotic food items – and as Old Glory gently waves nearby in the breeze – here are a few thing to ponder.
There are some new Pluribus in South Carolina these days. There is a new study out this week about who are the new people moving to South Carolina and the results might surprise you. The fastest growing group of New South Carolinians is Asians.
Though in absolutely numbers they are still small and only make up 2% of our state’s population, in the last five years the number of Asians in the Palmetto State has grown to over 20,000 – an increase over this period of 26%. The largest group of Asians came from India. By comparison, Hispanic growth has been 14%, American Indians 10%, whites 6% and blacks 4.4%.
It’s worth noting that Gov. Nikki Haley comes from an Indian immigrant family.
E Pluribus Unum has never been easy; there have always been tensions between new and old South Carolinians. Beginning in 1670 and for the next 100 years or so, the white folks who settled in South Carolina were largely similar. The Colony was founded from the Atlantic coast and the original white settlers were mostly from England, Episcopal, and the families of second (or third or fourth) sons of aristocratic families.
The first sons inherited the manor house and estate, the title and the seat in the House of Lords. Many younger sons came to the New World because their opportunities were limited in the Old.
When the Upcountry was founded beginning in the mid-1700, it was largely by Scots-Irish who came overland down through the Shenandoah Valley and tension grew almost immediately. These new Pluribus were hard scrabble, small farmers and Presbyterians. A prominent newspaper in Charleston called these Scots-Irish ‘the scum of two nations.’
E Pluribus Unum has always been about an aspiration of our greatest hopes over our darkest fears and from our earliest history (see S.C. and Scots-Irish above) there have always been politicians such as Donald Trump fanning the flames of suspicion, paranoia and fear.
It is nothing new in South Carolina, U.S. or even global history. Throughout U.S. history we have had politicians who scorned the Germans, Irish, Poles, Jews, Chinese, and Mexicans, and every other ‘fill in the blank’ immigrant group. These voices blame all of ‘our’ problems on ‘them’ and preach that if it we could go back to how it ‘was’ – then everything would be OK again. (Make our Colonies Great Again.)
It’s ironic that a nation of immigrants would be so susceptible to periodic convulsions of anti- immigrant prejudice … but we are.
This campaign season – both in the U.S. with Trump and in the UK with the anti-immigration hysteria that led to a vote to leave the EU – there is legitimate reason for concern about the rising fears over hopes.
But, although the fears never totally go away, the hopes do seem to usually win out. Somehow we always seem to be able to rise above our deepest fears and listen to our better angles – at least up until now.
In his short-lived presidential campaign, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley had perhaps the best line of the year when he said, “The enduring symbol of America is not the barbed wire fence, it’s the Statue of Liberty.”
And indeed it is.
O’Malley said it in 16 words; our forefathers said it in 13 letters – E Pluribus Unum.
We as a people, South Carolinians and Americans, must never forget this – nor forsake this.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the S.C. New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley to bring big change and real reform. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org