Pierre Eugene du Simitiere, a name largely forgotten by history, was one of the seemingly inexhaustible supply of polymaths roaming the byways of the newborn United States of America. A Swiss immigrant, he hobnobbed with Benjamin Franklin at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, when he wasn’t busy translating books or collecting treasures for what became the nation’s first history museum.
He was also an artist with a particular interest in emblems and seals — a booming business during an age when new states and new nations were in need of insignia. Simitiere is the man to thank (or to blame) for that radiant eyeball atop the pyramid on the back of the $1 bill. And, more relevant at the moment, he was the first to suggest “e pluribus unum” as a national motto.
The phrase can be translated “out of many, one.” It describes an action, not a passive state: Distinct individuals are being gathered into a unit, without necessarily giving up their differences. Simitiere apparently picked it up from a popular magazine — a sort of Reader’s Digest of the day — that used the slogan on its cover to signal that its articles were drawn from a variety of sources.
Nowadays, we call this aggregation, and what better name for the Founders’ enterprise? Aggregating one nation from a variety of disparate states — one people from many different homelands. Simitiere made this explicit by suggesting various symbols to represent this diversity in the centerpiece of the Great Seal. (He lost that argument to an angry-looking eagle.)
I don’t suppose we can expect the average television host to be hip to Simitiere. But even that creative Swiss American mind would boggle at the use Tucker Carlson of Fox News made of “e pluribus unum.”
It pains me to write about Carlson. I wouldn’t do it if the president didn’t watch his show. (Mr. President, please turn off the dang TV!) But he watches, and sometimes even repeats what he hears. He may well have heard Carlson mangle the motto during his misguided campaign to equate diversity with weakness.
Apparently, this started with a diatribe: “How, precisely, is diversity our strength?” Carlson asked, with sneering contempt slathered on the “precisely.” He had shown several speakers praising diversity on tape; so he answered them rhetorically. “Since you’ve made this our new national motto, please be specific as you explain it. Can you think, for example, of other institutions such as, I don’t know, marriage or military units in which the less people have in common, the more cohesive they are?”
The segment, which I read about the next day (at 57, I’m not old enough to watch Fox News), was a philosophical train wreck, beginning with the fact Carlson never defined “diversity.” Personally, I’m glad there is diversity in my marriage, because I wouldn’t want to be wed to a paunchy, balding man who sweats too much. I can think of many other strong marriages in which the partners are not exactly alike; “opposites attract” is an adage for good reason. And, I imagine, many military units thrive without being clones. Seventy-five years of war movies can’t all be wrong.
A couple of sentences later, supposedly still on topic, Carlson backflipped. Social media should welcome a greater diversity of ideas, he said. And I guess he deserved some credit for answering his own question: A robust exchange of ideas is — “precisely” — one example of diversity lending strength.
Now here’s where the motto comes in. Instead of a nice Emily Litella-style “never mind,” Carlson maintained on a follow-up show that “e pluribus unum” vindicates his argument. In his telling, “out of many, one” connotes that “our differences mean less than our common identity as Americans.” He is defending that common identity from the fragmenting forces of diversity; protecting the “unum” from the “pluribus.”
Wrong again: The “pluribus” and the “unum” are not in conflict. What the slogan actually signals is that our differences are essential to our common identity as Americans. If diversity were not the essence, the core, the strength of America, the motto could just be “unum.”
No two people are alike, yet everyone is created equal. Embracing this paradox is the American way.
It is not my role to try to make sense of another commentator’s mind-mush; battling my own is a full-time job. But it seems Carlson’s real target here is the style of identity politics that magnifies difference while minimizing common ground. I believe most Americans reject such extremism, because we believe all manner of people can share the common ground of liberty.
But that’s not what he said. Instead, Carlson equated “differences” with disunity and with weakness. No amount of swirling red, white and blue graphics can obscure the un-American pallor of that. I hope the president wasn’t listening.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.