E Pluribus Unum: A Worthy National Pursuit

(‘76 Contributors) People seem resigned to America as a nation of fragmented political groups. We are separated—red state, blue state; Republican and Democrat, liberal against conservative; and so on. Americans have different viewpoints, and there is no way we can agree on issues, so goes the argument. Our once distinguishing motto, E Pluribus Unum,—out of many, one—seems to many outdated and unattainable.

Of course, people are not going to agree on matters ranging from birth control and religion in public places to our health care system and foreign policy. However, we ought to be able to agree upon a set of principles that are central to democratic thinking. Otherwise, our republic is in jeopardy.

Americans need to understand the United States as an idea sustained through debate. This debate is about the tension between core American values. To participate productively, citizens must develop and cultivate a democratic mind capable of debating two conflicting values while noting the essential merit of both. It doesn’t matter if a person is Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, capitalist or socialists, religious or non–believer, white, black, brown, or yellow.

The mark of an enlightened citizen is the ability to reconcile four sets of values: 1) law versus ethics, 2) private wealth versus common wealth, 3) freedom versus equality, and 4) unity versus diversity. These value pairs or tensions are inherently antagonistic, yet together hold the promise for a good society. Let’s briefly explain each value tension.

We describe the United States as a nation of laws and believe in the rule of law with the duty of citizens to abide by laws. At the same time, many American heroes have been lawbreakers. George Washington led a rebellion against his sovereign government; he was a traitor. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and violated a Supreme Court ruling to maintain the union of American states. Rosa Parks broke the law on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to advocate for civil rights. The list goes on. How will American citizens balance the law with ethics and advance the cause of liberty and justice in the twenty–first century?

America’s quest for private wealth has been a driving force behind the nation’s economic development. Yet, investment in the public infrastructure—schools and universities, streets and highways, electric grids, gas utilities, and even parks, hospitals, libraries, and museums—benefit private businesses. Maintaining the common wealth enhances private wealth, but without thriving industries, tax revenues would not be available to adequately support public goods and services.

How will we revitalize the nation’s aging infrastructure of old bridges, frayed electrical systems, deteriorating schools, and inadequate levees and also build the new technological infrastructure that the 21st century demands?

The balance between freedom and equality is an essential fabric of American democracy. When conventional wisdom favors freedom, resources and money flow into the hands of the few. Left unattended the imbalance of wealth and power undermines democracy. In contrast, when government acts aggressively to redistribute wealth in the name of compassion and economic justice, personal liberty suffers.

With a growing disparity in wealth and income among its citizens, made greater by recent economic policies, are we at the dawn of a new “gilded age” in America with power shifting from the many to the few?

One of the finest achievements of the United States has been to create a stable, political culture made up of different languages, religious traditions, and races. But unity has been a persistent struggle. Typically, new immigrants to America over the years have faced discrimination, distrust, and abuse while occupying the bottom of the nation’s job chain. Economic diversity has always been evident, but the power of opportunity has been a unifying impulse for all. We have been a place for many religious denominations. And we have reveled in our regionalism as northerners, southerners, midwesterns, westerners and more while fiercely maintaining a loyal nationality.

Nowadays, we find people clustered into like–minded groups, as a result of the power of media combined with the decline in civic education. People of different persuasions increasingly sort themselves in isolated communities, viewing slanted cable TV, and listening to divisive talk radio. Can we retain the rich balance between unity and diversity that has been so important to us as a nation?

Taken to their logical ends, freedom leads to anarchy, equality to collectivism, diversity to tribalism, unity to totalitarianism, common wealth to communism, private wealth to plutocracy, law to fascism, and ethics to nihilism. Together, in a dynamic civil debate, they represent the ethos and aims of the United States.

Students would take a much greater interest in history and civics were it approached from the proposition that “representative democracy is developed and sustained through debate.” And citizens could more effectively address national issues viewing them through a prism of the value tensions.


This essay was jointly written by Richard D. Van Scotter, H. Michael Hartoonian, and William E. White. They are the authors of a new digital history and civics program for high school students developed by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Virginia.

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