E Pluribus Unum, Part One

Posted on 7/15/2009

In the first part of a new series, David W. Lange sets out to de-mystify a great legend in numismatics.

To the non-numismatist, one of the more puzzling features of United States coins is the Latin legend E Pluribus Unum. To begin with, few Americans can even identify this phrase as being Latin. Its actual meaning is an even bigger mystery. This is just the sort of misunderstanding that fuels the fires of conspiracy theorists, who place great significance on supposed Masonic secrets hidden within our coins and paper currency (Hollywood has capitalized on this suspicion in popular fiction such as the two National Treasure movies starring Nicholas Cage). This month I’ll attempt to de-mystify this legend and trace its history on our coinage.

The first appearance of the phrase E Pluribus Unum seems to have been upon the Great Seal of the United States of America, adopted in 1782. This shows a bald eagle grasping a banner in its beak inscribed with this legend, which Webster’s Dictionary translates as “out of many, one,” a clear reference to the then-current Confederation of states. It was next included on dies engraved in England by Thomas Wyon for a proposed common coinage for the Confederation, a petition which was rejected in 1785. Walter Breen writes that Walter Mould, seeking not to waste his investment in dies, paired this reverse type with customized obverse dies for the copper coinage of New Jersey. These pieces were produced 1786–89 as a commercial venture, though the last examples were dated 1788. On both the Wyon patterns and the New Jersey coppers made for circulation, the Latin legend encircles a shield similar to that from the Great Seal and later utilized on the federal coinage starting in 1795.

The legend’s next appearance is upon the undated copper tokens commonly called Kentucky Tokens by American collectors. These are actually tradesmen’s tokens made in Birmingham, England in the early-mid 1790s and referencing British businesses on those pieces having lettered edges, though the imagery is distinctly American. Plain-edge examples clearly did circulate in the United States for a time, and they are popularly collected as part of the American series. The legend E PLURIBUS UNUM surrounds a pyramid comprised of fifteen stars upon each of which is the first initial of an American state. ‘K’ for Kentucky appears upon the topmost star, hence the familiar name for these pieces.

In 1796 the gold quarter eagle debuted with a new reverse featuring a replica of the Great Seal of the United States (the 1795-dated half eagles with this reverse were coined circa 1797). Though there are numerous stylistic differences between the original and Robert Scot’s 1796 interpretation, the most startling is that he transposed the arrows of war with the olive branch of peace. Proper heraldry dictated that the latter occupy the position of dominance within the eagle’s dexter, or right, claw, indicating a preference for peace over war. Scot, perhaps forgetting that he was engraving a mirror image of the actual coins, placed the arrows of war in this position. The legend E PLURIBUS UNUM, as on the seal, appears on each of the Heraldic Eagle reverse coins inscribed upon a banner grasped within the eagle’s beak. This design was subsequently applied to all of the other gold and silver denominations over the next several years.

John Reich’s Capped Bust of Liberty was paired with his “sandwich board” eagle, and this combination of designs was adapted to the various silver and gold denominations starting in 1807. Reich correctly placed the olive branch of peace within the eagle’s dexter claw. The Latin legend, however, was removed from the eagle’s beak and placed upon a banner above its head. These designs were revised slightly by William Kneass and Christian Gobrecht during the years 1828–34, yet the legend survived in this position on the half dime, dime and half dollar. Mint Director Samuel Moore nevertheless objected to its presence, as he considered the phrase redundant on coins already inscribed UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. He ordered its removal from the modified quarter dollar of 1831–38 and from the reduced-weight quarter eagles and half eagles of 1834–39. In 1836, as Gobrecht produced a sleek new interpretation of Reich’s 1807 design for the half dollar, this coin too lost its Latin legend.

When all of our coin denominations underwent complete design transformations between 1837 and 1840, each emerged without the words E Pluribus Unum, and this legend went nearly unused for decades. This is perhaps just as well, as the adoption of the motto “In God We Trust” in 1866 on the larger silver and gold denominations would have been nearly impossible otherwise. The space above the eagle into which this phrase was added that year almost certainly would have been occupied with the older legend, as that is where it had appeared on the coins of 1807–37. The Mint’s engravers would have had to act like air-traffic controllers to find a suitable location for the new motto so as to avoid a collision with the old one. Edge lettering, a practice last used at the US Mint in 1836, may have been revived for one or both phrases, as it would be in later years.

The arrival of the US Mint’s second century would bring numerous varied and clever placements of the aging legend E Pluribus Unum. Some of these would involve entirely new technology for the Mint, as artists struggled to squeeze this increasingly obscure and curious phrase onto coins without distracting from their simple beauty. The challenge would be great, and it not always met successfully.

David W. Lange's column “USA Coin Album” appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.