“Out of Many, One” was the motto of the U.S. from 1782 until 1956, when it was replaced by “In God We Trust.” Even now, the Latin phrase “E pluribus unum” can be found on our $1 bills in the banner held by the eagle, on some of our coins, and on the flags and seals of both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Always aspirational, “Out of Many, One” was meant to signal to the world that the original 13 colonies were united — which they were in 1782, when faced with a common enemy, England.
But they were clearly not united regarding slavery. Pennsylvania outlawed the practice of owning other human beings in 1780, Massachusetts and New Hampshire in 1783, Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784. Vermont, not one of the original 13 British colonies because it had declared independence from Britain earlier, actually abolished slavery in 1777.
Slavery, America’s original sin, bitterly divided the new country, and led to our Civil War, making “E Pluribus Unum” a hopeless cause. In 1956, threatened by the specter of “Godless Communism,” Congress dumped “E Pluribus Unum” and changed our motto to “In God We Trust.” For good measure, it added the phrase “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Those changes in the 1950s were cosmetic, but Congress has tried to bring us together, most notably with the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which Congress ratified in 1868 (along with the 13th and 15th Amendments). The 14th Amendment provides for “equal protection under the law,” and prohibits states from taking away fundamental rights — which Southern white politicians were busy trying to do (and which an earlier Supreme Court decision, Scott v. Sandford, allowed).
In Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), the Supreme Court held that African Americans were not U.S. citizens, even if they were free.
The 14th Amendment, however, guaranteed that everyone born or naturalized in the U.S. and under its jurisdiction would be a U.S. citizen. It also ensured that federal citizenship was made primary, which meant that states could not prevent freed slaves from obtaining state citizenship and thus federal citizenship. As such, the 14th Amendment effectively overturned Scott v. Sandford.
In simplest terms, the federal government always has a vested interest in Unum, while the states always lean toward Pluribus. That fundamental tension is built into our Constitution, which declares that any and all rights and powers not specifically enumerated as belonging to the central government therefore belong to the states.
Education is a good example of the federal/state tension. Because “education” does not appear in the Constitution, that was reason enough for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule (5-4) in 1973 that American citizens do not have a fundamental constitutional right to an education. Education, the court said, was up to individual states.
End of story?
Well, no, it wasn’t, because the White House and the Congress, particularly when controlled by Democrats, wanted to improve the life circumstances of children and families living in poverty. Better schools, they felt, were the safest and least controversial way to do that. (Housing, healthcare, a guaranteed living wage, et cetera, were either too difficult or impossible.)
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter and Democrats in Congress created a Cabinet-level Department of Education, which Republicans have campaigned against ever since. Ironically, however, it was a Republican president who went “a bridge too far” for many American parents. George W. Bush, former governor of Texas, worked with Democrats in Congress to create “No Child Left Behind.” Its onerous rules and harsh penalties applied to virtually every U.S. public school, and led to a massive increase in machine-scored standardized testing in English and math … and the disappearance of art, music, physical education, and recess, as well as widespread cheating by adults whose jobs depended on higher test scores.
If “No Child Left Behind” got the camel’s nose into the tent, the Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top” put the entire camel squarely inside the structure. In 2009, the Great Recession prompted Congress to give Education Secretary Arne Duncan $4.35 billion in discretionary money, which was more money than all other Education secretaries combined. Congress did not earmark the money, but left it to Duncan to decide how to distribute it. Suddenly, Duncan had the power to make states — desperate for dollars — do whatever he and his advisors wanted them to do.
As some noted at the time, Arne Duncan had declared himself the de facto national school superintendent.
He established four criteria, but for many in the states, the actual criteria weren’t the point. This was federal overreach, a usurpation of states’ rights. And as soon as it could, a Republican Congress changed the rules, writing laws and regulations that hamstrung Duncan’s successors. Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, did not have the authority to do much, although she pushed hard for programs like vouchers and charter schools, which take away resources from traditional public schools. President Biden’s Education secretary, Miguel Cardona, has all but disappeared from the political scene, leaving education to the states.
And states are stepping up their push for power, not just in education but in virtually every way possible, including voting, healthcare, and a woman’s right to choose. I urge you to read Jamelle Bouie’s brilliant piece in the New York Times, which makes it clear that we are further away than ever from “E Pluribus Unum.”
But we cannot give up on national unity.
Clearly, no single step or action would bring us together, but what if you had the opportunity to try to move us toward national unity?
What would you call for? Here are some suggestions: 1) Mandatory voting. 2) An inspirational and charismatic president along the lines of JFK. 3) Mandatory two-year national service for all young people. 4) Restoration of the Fairness Doctrine (“equal time,”) and have it apply to all television news, including cable. 5) A common enemy like Russia or China. 6) A more equitable tax system. Or something else?
What do you think would have the best chance of healing our country, and why?
Two-time Peabody Award recipient John Merrow lives in Edgartown.