The best thing about our hobby is how it occasionally compels us to do research when we make a discovery, as I did recently in a study of mottoes and coin design.
One of the study’s goals was to document where our mottoes — “E Pluribus Unum” and “In God We Trust” — typically appeared, on the obverse or reverse of U.S. circulating and commemorative coinage.
The inscription E PLURIBUS UNUM — “out of many, one” — usually appears on the reverse; IN GOD WE TRUST more often on the obverse.
“E Pluribus Unum” has always meant much to me as a first generation American. My parents came to the United States before World War II from Malta, a Mediterranean archipelago.
The 1886 Statue of Liberty commemorative silver dollar celebrates Ellis Island (through which my parents and grandparents passed) as “The Gateway to America,” with the reverse bearing the inscription GIVE ME YOUR TIRED, YOUR POOR, YOUR HUDDLED MASSES, YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE. On the coin, this lengthy inscription appears beneath Liberty’s freedom torch and above E PLURIBUS UNUM.
Historically, of course, the motto does not imply a melting pot. It refers to the Colonies that later became states. Out of many of those, a nation emerged.
The motto appears on the obverse of the 1782 Great Seal of the United States. The seal is our “coat of arms,” depicting an emblematic eagle with shield as breastplate holding 13 arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other. Above the eagle is a “glory,” or halo, of 13 stars representing the original Colonies but presented in a specific order, 1-4-3-4-1, which creates a six-pointed star. In the eagle’s beak is a ribbon that contains E PLURIBUS UNUM, which has appeared on U.S. coins since 1795, beginning with the $5 half eagle whose reverse is an adaptation of the obverse of the Great Seal.
One difference concerns the eagle’s head facing in the direction of arrows in the right talon whereas the eagle on the Great Seal holds an olive branch there, signifying that we prefer peace (but will defend ourselves).
The Seated Liberty 20-cent coin and Trade dollar keep arrows in the right talon but show the eagle’s head facing left — opposite that of the seal — favoring the olive branch in the left talon there.
A rendition of the Great Seal of the United States with E PLURIBUS UNUM also is the reverse of the Kennedy half dollar.
The Latin phrase is required by law on all U.S. coinage. However, it is not the official motto of the United States. In 1956, an act of Congress adopted “In God We Trust” as the official motto.
The absence of mottoes on coins can cause quite a stir.
For instance, much attention was paid to the so-called “godless” Washington Presidential dollar in 2007 because IN GOD WE TRUST was missing along with the rest of the edge inscription. However, E PLURIBUS UNUM also was missing on those error coins.
One U.S. coin displays the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM twice. The 1991 Mount Rushmore commemorative silver dollar uses the Great Seal as an inset on a reverse that also depicts the motto over the denomination.
Michael Bugeja, a coin collector since childhood, is a professor at Iowa State University and also a member of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee. He is a nationally known author, journalist and educator.