President Obama has proclaimed his intention of changing the unofficial motto of the United States, e pluribus unum, on the Seal of the President.
Here’s its history:
E pluribus unum — Latin for “Out of many, one” (alternatively translated as “One out of many” or “One from many”) — is a phrase on the Seal of the United States, along with Annuit cœptis and Novus ordo seclorum, and adopted by an Act of Congress in 1782. Never codified by law, E pluribus unum was considered a de facto motto of the United States until 1956 when the United States Congress passed an act (H. J. Resolution 396), adopting “In God We Trust” as the official motto.
Not only does e pluribus unum appear on the Seal of the United States, it also appears on the Seal of the President as well as other official US seals (those of the House and Senate, for example). But although an act of Congress established the original e pluribus unum on the Seal of the United States in 1782, the application of the motto to the other seals was not sealed (as it were) by the legislature.
As far as its appearance on the Seal of the President goes, it has developed through custom, based on the official Seal of the US scheme, with Presidents Truman and Eisenhower solidifying the design by executive orders during their administrations (Eisenhower added the stars for Alaska and Hawaii to the circle of stars surrounding the eagle to make fifty). So there’s no need for new legislation to change it; Obama can do it by executive fiat.
Here’s the Seal in use today; you can see the motto prominently displayed:
It’s not the first time Obama has played with the seal. You may recall that during his 2008 campaign he was mocked for using a campaign seal that mimicked the Seal of the President, although it was simpler and contained a different motto above the eagle’s head, “Vero Possumus,” which translates more or less as ‘Yes we can.”
Here’s what it looked like:
Today Obama explained:
When I campaigned in 2008 I used a campaign seal that said “Yes, we can” in Latin. When I became president I used the seal that the forty-three presidents before me had used. I am a great respecter of tradition, but I believe that in honor of my new term I need a new motto. I thought to take the old campaign slogan’s Latin version of “yes, we can” and merely change it to the Latin for “yes, we did,” which would be “Vero Fecimus.”
But then I had a better idea, which is to use “E Unum Pluribus” instead. Our old motto meant “out of many, one.” It was a good motto, appropriate for its times. But our new one—“out of one, many“—is appropriate for our times. And the new one has the same number of letters, so it can fit on the seal exactly where the old one went.
The new motto has two meanings. The first is obvious; it’s meant to honor the great diversity of this nation and the fact that we no longer feel the need to arrogantly force new arrivals to give up their old cultures and merge into the prevailing one. The second meaning is more subtle; it refers to my nickname, The One, and the many achievements I’ve accomplished during my many years in office, as well as the many things I plan to do during the remaining years of my term.
We’ve only just begun. E Unum Pluribus!
[ADDENDUM: Scott Johnson is much better at Latin than I.]