August 28, 2012
To My Fellow Citizens:
In August 1790, Moses Seixas, Warden of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, wrote a letter to President George Washington, welcoming him to the city. “Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens,” Seixas wrote, “we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship:—deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine ….” Seixas continued, expressing thanks for “all these Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal benign administration.”
President Washington replied three days later, appreciating the sentiments and explaining something about the principles that give rise to the blessings of civil and religious liberty: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States … requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
The idea of America’s “enlarged and liberal policy” is that all “possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” The government that extends the invaluable rights of free citizens to those heretofore deprived of them does so because it believes it can follow no other course if it wants to be a just, legitimate government. Certain natural rights are unalienable according to the Declaration of Independence, and governments are instituted among men to secure these individual rights. The indifference to ethnic and religious distinctions that had caused wars around the world for centuries is a byproduct of this understanding of what government must and must not do.
Our first president, then, was addressing what we would today call the problem of “diversity” in a way that made it sound like it wasn’t really much of a problem. Or, as the 40th president liked to say, it was a problem whose solution was not necessarily easy, but was simple: As long as people were good citizens, the government would recognize and protect their rights, strictly refusing to calibrate that duty by taking into account different religious affiliations or national origins.
What’s at stake, however, is not just the relationship between citizens and state, but the nature of the relationships among citizens. Washington concludes his letter to the Hebrew congregation by alluding to the Old Testament book of Micah: “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” A diverse nation can work if its members strive conscientiously to be worthy of one another’s good will, and to be generous in extending that good will to all who have earned it.
We usually understand “E Pluribus Unum”—From Many, One—as a call to make federalism work. The colonies that formed the 13 original states, plus other states subsequently admitted to the Union, were supposed to remain distinct political entities while composing a viable whole. From the beginning, however, there was the parallel awareness of the need for the people to form one nation, even as the states formed one country. The first design for the Seal of the United States included, in addition to “E Pluribus Unum” and the shields of the 13 colonies, six symbols for “the Countries from which these States have been peopled”: England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Holland, and Germany. Virginians and Georgians would be Americans but so, too, would Englishmen and Germans.
The need to accord adequate scope and respect to “oneness” and “manyness,” while at the same time reconciling them, is not just an American problem. It is a fundamental political problem, always and everywhere, since all encompassing human assemblages must find a workable balance between the centrifugal force of Pluribus and the centripetal one of Unum. The circumstances under which America has addressed this problem have been uniquely challenging, however. The population of the United States in 1790, when Seixas and Washington exchanged their letters, was 3,894,000, less than half the number of New York City’s inhabitants today and about one 80th of the present U.S. population.
Moreover, we are not only far more diverse in 2012 than America was in 1790 as a matter of fact, but as a matter of principle. We use “diversity,” that is, as a prescriptive as well as a descriptive term. Those for whom diversity is a cause insist justice demands new and greater efforts to honor and accommodate our plurality. These demands include many particulars, such as: public signs and official documents written in Spanish as well as English; successful lawsuits against displaying Christmas trees or the Ten Commandments on public property; same-sex marriage; and affirmative action programs that are supposed to assist not only the members of minority groups who are admitted to colleges or hired by organizations, but the entire student body or workforce that benefits from a widened range of experiences and perspectives.
Turning diversity into an ideology does not make the many/one problem disappear, however. In fact, as the list of particularities America is asked to encompass grows indefinitely, the unifying ideas and sentiments become all the more important. Thoughtful advocates of diversity increasingly recognize that any Pluribus worth celebrating is made possible only by the great American Unum—the central idea from which Abraham Lincoln said all his political sentiments radiated: the self evident truth that all men are created equal. Under today’s circumstances, it has been thought most fitting and helpful in this series of letters to emphasize this American Unum and to articulate its meaning and profound implications. We trust, however, that a fair-minded review will find the series a not unworthy monument to the mystic chords of memory that make an enduring and beautiful harmony of the American Unum and Pluribus.