Is ‘E Pluribus Unum’ a pipe dream?


“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.


  1. The public school system in the US has declined miserably by any metric and having vouchers and charter schools does not take money away from traditional schools–it simply gives people more choice. Isnt choice a good thing? Should the government measure the performance of the public school system before giving them more money?

    • gotta agree with you on this one andy– in world standing, the us has remained nearly consistent in a few things, but has had some serious declines in mathematical ability since 2017, bringing the average down. But it did tick up slightly last year, so there is some hope.

      How are those publicly funded charter schools doing by the way , compared to the top 3 world leaders–
      Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea ?
      Are they even outscoring the “regular” U.S public schools?
      How about the religiously affiliated indoctrination centers ?
      Are they doing any better
      Do you know ?

      Perhaps you could look that up, or you could just opine that Biden has ruined our educational system with nothing but the basis of your indoctrinated opinion.

      Here, let me show you how it’s done. I will pull a statistic directly out a place on my body that rarely sees sunlight.
      Then, I will claim it is fact;
      “Public schools are academically way ahead of private schools.–Especially those Christian indoctrination centers.”
      Prove me wrong..
      You can also emphatically assert that Biden was responsible for the sharp decline in mathematical scores from 2017 through 2020.
      Show us some facts on that also, please.

      • Keller, I didnt mention Biden. He had nothing to do with decline in public education. It began the long journey of decline many years ago.

        • Good–because in case you missed it, trump was president during that sharp decline. I mentioned Biden because there has been a bit of an uptick since he has been president.
          But according to the right wing circus, all things under trump were great, and now the country is ruined.
          Just because unemployment is low, pay grades are going up, stock market going up, inflation going down, gas prices falling, poverty rate going down, math scores going up, life expectancy going back up, more people insured, GDP up, deficit down and no active wars for the first time in over 20 years doesn’t mean that Biden had not completely destroyed the country.
          But I will certainly point the finger directly at Betsy DeVos for the decline of education during her tenure.

        • andy– good for you because Biden wasn’t president during the years I mentioned. I will point the finger directly at Betsy DeVos.
          But I sometimes wonder about the right’s sense of reality.
          The facts are that unemployment is at historically low levels, pay grades are rising, inflation and gas prices are dropping, poverty is dropping, life expectancy is again rising, more people have health insurance, GDP averaged a 4% increase in both 2021 and 2022, the federal deficit has been cut by more than 50% since 2020, the stock market is up about 20% in the last 6 months and the united states is not directly involved in any wars (boots on the ground) for the first time since 2001.
          But despite that, the right claims that Biden has “ruined” the country and the economy.
          Kind of makes me wonder sometimes about how deeply the “alternative facts” have seeped into our collective consciousness.

    • Charter/School Choice segregates children with savvy parents who are concerned about their children’s education and those who are not.
      High academic achievers are cheaper to educate.
      They get the average money.
      Leave the public schools to the ELLs and the intellectually challenged?

    • Better government is smaller government.
      Why is the government in the business of education?
      Education is a matter of personal choice.
      If you want it, you pay for it, just like everything else.

  2. I wouldn’t support mandatory voting. Americans who aren’t informed about specific issues or affected by the outcome would vote without careful consideration and skew the results.

    I also wouldn’t encourage the search for more charismatic candidates. Elections shouldn’t be treated as popularity contests, and they very much have been. I believe we need to start choosing leaders based purely on track record and proposed policies, not for their personas/surface appeal. While inspiration is nice when you can get it, results matter more. Some of the most reasonable, knowledgeable people present as quite boring. We’re passing on traits that produce better outcomes for traits that are fairly meaningless once one gets down to the real work.

    As for healing… I believe that if Americans put as much energy into holding their own parties accountable as they do in smearing what they view as the other side, we’d start to come back together eventually. There are major issues across the political spectrum that can and should be tackled, yet the prevailing attitude seems to be that only the left/right is at fault. Things are rarely so simple.

    There’s also way too much dishonesty going around, so debating never comes to a fruitful conclusion. Few want to make their own side look weak by calling out its bad apples or hypocrisy. In order to clean house and demonstrate sincerity, we have to be better about that.

    This stuff, of course, can’t be legislated. I know I’m not offering any great fix here. It’s a matter of choice. At some point, using insults with abandon became more important than listening, compromise, and solutions.

  3. Yes Andrew, choice is a good thing. Women should have the right to choose how, when or if they will have a child. Or is choice only a good thing when it meets your religious test?

    • Yes Jonathan, women have a right to choose if they will have a child or not. But when the baby is in the womb, abortion is killing it—isnt that right? Or is it not killing anything? You may not mind killing the baby, but it is killing or do you have an alternate answer?

      • Andrew, there are no babies in wombs, babies breathe air.
        There is no air in a womb.
        Having cancer removed from your body is killing along with breast reduction.

    • Religious views have nothing to do with the issue. That’s just cheap and lazy posturing. If you have intentionally extinguished a distinguishable heartbeat, then what have you done? If that heartbeat belonged to a an entity that shares half of your DNA, then what could you call that? These are unavoidable questions that cannot be adequately captured under the heading of choice. I don’t practice any religion, but the answers are still clear to me. Others have differing views, and they can live with their decisions. I believe in personal choices, and I believe that they are limited by the impacts that they have on others. i also believe that you are intentionally trying to shame Andrew for what you understand his religious beliefs to be, and that just sucks.

  4. Andrew intentionally forcing his religious beliefs on we the people, in a nation with separation of religion and State, that just sucks.
    God said so.
    Whop De Do.

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