"E pluribus unum", of course, being the motto on the obverse side of the Great Seal of the United States. It's written on the swirly banner flying over the eagle's head. The reverse side, of course, has that weird spooky pyramid with the radiant eyeball on top and those other cryptic Latin mottoes.
Long before we adopted "In God We Trust" as a way of distinguishing ourselves from the godless Russkies, e pluribus unum was our de facto national motto. It means, basically, out of many, one. For "many", you can read "13 states", or "lots of different kinds of people", and it has been interpreted in both ways right from the get.
Back in the early days, "lots of different kinds of people" basically meant "different kinds of male northern Europeans". As an aside, I often wonder whether, had the founders been able to gaze into the future to see exactly how broad a spectrum of folks would eventually be considered to have been "created equal", they would have given independence up as a bad job and decided that the yoke of English colony-hood was not such a weighty burden after all. A digression, perhaps, for another day.
What about the "one" part? Are we talking about "one nation", or "one people", or one what, exactly?
If one nation, what is the basis of the unity? At the beginning, it seems like "one nation" meant that the various states assented to be governed by central, federal institutions. At least, as regards some stuff.
If one people, what is the identity that we all share? At the beginning, you could (maybe) argue for a common Anglo / northern European / mostly Protestant cultural heritage, and a specifically Anglo / common law political heritage.
What about now?
What I'm trying to understand, after watching the crazy dysfunctional drunken wild ride of American politics over the last, say, 40 or 50 years, is whether we really are one, or not.
Politically, we seem to be hanging together, more or less, although some folks seem to feel a constant urge to pull as much political autonomy back to a local scale as they possibly can.
As a people, I'm less sure. There is certainly more cultural / ethnic / religious diversity now than in the early days, but that is not what worries me. What worries me is that we do not seem to have a common understanding of what, fundamentally, it means to be American.
I wonder if there is a "there" there, anymore, and if there is, what it is.
Who are we? Who do we want to be? Is the only thing holding us together the inertia of a quarter millenium of history? Or is there some underlying (if not so visible these days) common understanding of what we're about? What obligations, if any, do we owe each other? What responsibilities, if any, do we bear toward each other?
What unites us?
What, ultimately, is the point of being American, here in the early days of the 21st C?