E pluribus unum: Out of many, one
“E pluribus unum.” The Latin words in English are “out of many one,” and refer to the union formed by separate states, adopted as a national motto in 1776.
The words meant something in the early days of our republic, this coming together as a nation committed to forming a republic where people could be free to choose their own representatives, speak, gather, and worship without worrying that some official might throw them into jail.
The founders were not perfect. Most were white male landowners. Some held slaves.
But they came together with a bold, new vision that people had certain basic rights: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
And they enshrined these core values in a basic bill of rights, the first one being the right to speak freely.
Seven years after the Bill of Rights was passed, another law was passed under President John Adams, called the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798.
The words of this Act were quite clear, threatening to jail anyone who “write, print, utter, or publish … any false, scandalous … writing or writings against the government of the United States.”
Of course, one person’s scandalous writing might be another’s truth, so the act was clearly directed toward those who criticized President Adams.
This was the first, but not last, attempt to silence freedom of speech.
The first American tried, convicted and thrown into a cold, damp Vermont jail cell was Matthew Lyon, then a Vermont representative but also a Republican and a newspaper publisher and founder of two towns.
An Irish immigrant to this country and an indentured servant for ten years, Lyon knew tyrants when he found them, and he felt Adams was such.
He wrote that Adams only wanted power, and had an “unbounded thirst for ridiculous power, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice ... When I see the sacred name of religion employed as a state engine to make mankind hate and persecute one another, I shall not be their humble advocate.”
Lyon believed that freedom of the press was the key to a democracy.
Any attempt to quiet freedom of the press violated the country for which he fought in the Revolutionary War.
His friend, Thomas Jefferson, for whom he cast the deciding vote as president, wrote about anyone occupying the presidency: “When the speech condemns a free press, you are listening to a tyrant.”
With my brother, Richard, I have just finished and published a new book about Matthew Lyon called “Resist Tyranny.”
In less than a hundred pages, the book tells Lyon’s story from arriving here as young Irish immigrant, rising to start a business and new town in Vermont, publishing a newspaper, and representing both Vermont and Kentucky in the House of Representatives.
As I finished the book, I wondered what Lyon might say to us today, and offered what I imagined he would write to us, which included a few suggestions for keeping our union unbroken:
“Take being a citizen seriously. “Organize for good causes. “Work for leaders who support all the people, not just a few of them.
““Vote as if your life depended on it, because it does. Speak out against oppression of all kinds.
“Keep leaders under watch; the best form of democracy is that of citizen patriots, not permanent office holders. “Seek truth; challenge lies. “And when the government seems to be corrupt, it is your patriotic duty to change those who lead it.”