A day or two before the election, I read on CNN the “Visions for America” from President Obama and Governor Romney. While both of their messages contained some semblance of vision, their messages fell pitifully short of anything that could potentially unite the fractious American states.
E Pluribus Unum
We the people have become so busy fighting amongst ourselves because of our supposed “differences” that we have failed to see the real source of our division: we have ceased to see each other as a united nation, we have ceased to be a nation that fully embraces the phrase “E Pluribus Unum” (“Out of many, one”). Instead, we are becoming a nation of “Ex Uno Plures,” (“Out of one, many”).
Indeed, throughout the 2012 election both parties exploited our greatest divisions, using them for political gain and campaign contributions. Whether or not your candidate won, to some degree we’ve all lost, because this election has left us more divided than united.
It’s as if politicians—and the people that fund them—sit at a fine dinning table, feasting on the wealth of the nation and beating their chests in a petty game of “king of the mountain.”
Desperate to maintain these festivities, this plutocracy of men and women proclaim to be “just like you” (while living lifestyles that are well beyond our wildest dreams). They pit us against one another to encourage and fund their power grabs. They feed off of our fighting and make gains because of our disunity.
Tecumseh and the Shawnee Confederacy
Such is the story of the Shawnee Indians shortly after the Revolutionary War. Under a ruthless plan of expansion advocated by President Thomas Jefferson and Governor William Henry Harrison, the Shawnee Indians were being systematically removed from their lands (present-day Indiana and Ohio). To accomplish their designs, American expansionists encouraged division between the tribes, exploiting tribal differences to gain land and power. The natives, unable to clearly see the American expansionists as their enemies, traded their lands for “rum, trinkets and a grave.”
Enter Tecumseh, a Shawnee Chief whose leadership during this time would transform him a legend. In an epic confrontation with Governor Harrison, Tecumseh said: “You do not want unity among the tribes, and you destroy it. You try to make differences between them. We, their leaders, wish them to unite and consider their land the common property of all, but you try to keep them from this. You separate the tribes and deal with them that way, one by one, and advise them not to come into this union.”
Tecumseh then added this stinging rebuke, “Your states have set an example of forming a union among all the Fires, why should you censure the Indians for following that example?”
And so, “following that example” of the American Revolutionaries, Tecumseh traveled through various Indian territories to create a confederacy of tribes that could stand against the encroaching American government. Said he:
“Brothers, we all belong to one family; we are all children of the Great Spirit; we walk in the same path; slake our thirst at the same spring; and now affairs of the greatest concern lead us to smoke the pipe around the same council fire! Brothers, we are friends; we must assist each other to bear our burdens.”
Despite overwhelming opposition and seemingly insurmountable differences between the tribes,
Tecumseh’s confederacy became the largest pan-Native American resistance ever assembled on the North American continent. Tecumseh achieved this unity because he advocated a message that transcended petty tribal infighting; his was a message that united tribal hearts despite their differing tongues. Their subsequent successes brought them out of obscurity and launched them into legend.
As the success of Tecumseh was predicated upon the unity of a broad range of people, so too, is our success as a nation predicated upon the unity of many—upon E Pluribus Unum.
But how can we achieve unity amid such great diversity?
We must first remember that despite what some would have us believe, we are more alike than we are different. We are, for all intents and purposes, a family. Our individual lives are inescapably linked to the common welfare of our nation.
David McCullough, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of John Adams, shared this touching story in a 2005 Address:
[In 1775] a unit from Pennsylvania rode in [to George Washington’s Camp]—militiamen, among whom was a young officer named Charles Willson Peale, the famous painter. He walked among these ragged troops of Washington’s who had made the escape across from New Jersey and wrote about it in his diary. He said he’d never seen such miserable human beings in all his life—starving, exhausted, filthy. One man in particular he thought was just the most wretched human being he had ever laid eyes on. He described how the man’s hair was all matted and how it hung down over his shoulders. The man was naked except for what they called a blanket coat. His feet were wrapped in rags, his face all covered with sores from sickness. Peale was studying him when, all of a sudden, he realized that the man was his own brother.
Despite outward appearances, we are all brothers. Ours is a nation of states united—states with different needs, cultures and histories. Each state is filled with a diversity of races, religions, ethnicities, political beliefs, and languages. Yet despite all of these differences, at critical junctures in our nation’s history, we have all unified under the banner of E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one.
Despite the tactics of politicians and plutocrats, we must rise above the discord and division. Now more than ever we must unite against division.
So the next time you’re tempted to jump on a political bandwagon after you watch a debate, attend a town hall meeting, see a news report, or hear a political opinion that is contrary to your own, I would encourage you to search for common ground—to search for unity, above the division. I warn you, unity is generally found on the high ground—a steep climb and arduous climb above the muck and mire of division. Taking the high road of unity demands that we compromise with others and leave behind old prejudices to form new friendships.
If compromise and unity sounds too difficult for you, keep in mind that our Constitution was born of compromise between individuals with very different views.
I close with a portion of Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 Inaugural Address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
That is my vision of America: a unity against division. E Pluribus Unum.