The US goes by the motto In God We Trust (but only since 1956, when it replaced the ‘unofficial’ motto, E pluribus unum). A motto (from the Italian word for pledge, plural mottos or mottoes) describes a quality or intention that a group of people aim to live up to – a mission statement of sorts. As such, America’s newer motto has invited more controversy than the older one, since it seems to run counter to the principle of separation of church and state. Its introduction did seem to make sense at the time, what with the Cold War against those godless communists.
As demonstrated on this map, the 50 states making up the US each have their own motto too. The two-and-a-half score state mottos display a wide variety, of quotations, languages and underlying messages. English is the favourite language, but not even by half: only 24 state mottos are originally in English; Latin, once the language for all solemn occacions (and not just exorcisms), accounts for 20. Two mottos are in native languages, and French, Spanish, Italian and Greek account for one each. The system of checks and balances seems to work for mottos too: if the national motto is overtly religious, then only six of the state ones refer to God, either directly or obliquely. Most deal with secular rights, and the readiness to defend them. The Bible is tied with Cicero as the source for the most mottos (three), while classical literature has proven a particularly fertile breeding ground for inspirational quotes (mottos originate with Lucretius, Aesop, Virgil, Brutus and Archimedes).
Alabama: Audemus jura nostra defendere – We Dare Defend Our Rights
Originates in lines from ‘An Ode in Imitation of Alcaeus’, a poem by Sir William Jones (published 1781), which were adapted by Marie Bankhead Owen (Alabama State Archives) and translated into Latin by Dr W.B. Saffold (University of Alabama).
Alaska: North to the Future
The Commission for Alaska’s Centennial (1967) sponsored a contest to provide the state with an official motto. Out of 761 entries, it awarded the $300 prize to Richard Peter, a journalist from Juneau. Peter stated that his motto “…is a reminder that beyond the horizon of urban clutter there is a Great Land beneath our flag that can provide a new tomorrow for this century’s ‘huddled masses yearning to be free’.”
Arizona: Ditat deus – God Enriches
First included in the state seal by Richard Cunningham McCormick (1832-1901), Secretary of the Arizona Territory. Probably an adapted abbreviation of Genesis 14:23 (“quod a filo subtegminis usque ad corigiam caligæ, non accipiam ex omnibus quæ tua sunt, ne dicas : Ego ditavi Abram:” – “That I will not take from a thread even to a shoelatchet, and that I will not take any thing that is thine, lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich:”)
Arkansas: Regnat populus – (May) the People Rule
First adoped in 1864 as part of the seal, and originally rendered as Regnant Populi (‘May the Peoples Rule’), it was changed in 1907 to the current, singular version. Origin of the phrase unknown.
California: Eureka – I Have Found It
This form of the Greek verb heuriskein means ‘I have discovered it’, and was most famously uttered by Archimedes, when he had his Aha-Erlebnis while sitting down in a bath, and simultaneously understanding that the volume of water displaced must be equal in volume of his submerged body. He is said to have been so psyched by his discovery that he ran through the streets of Syracuse naked.
The Californian moment of discovery celebrated by the state slogan is the striking of gold near Sutter’s Mill in 1848, giving rise to the Gold Rush. The Greek exclamation has been on California’s seal since 1849, but was only officialised in 1963. The town or Eureka uses the state seal as its city seal. Over 40 localities were similarly named, and the word has also been used in Australian gold rush, a few years after the Californian one.
Colorado: Nil sine numine – Nothing Without Providence
Probably an adaptation of Line 777 in Book 2 of Virgil’s Aeneid: (…) non haec sine numine devum eveniunt. The translation has often given cause for dispute, as ‘numen’ is a word that may be translated as vague-sounding Providence, as a rather non-commital Deity or as the strict and fierce monotheistic God. Some more practically-minded pioneers anglified the state slogan as ‘Nothing without a new mine’.
Connecticut: Qui transtulit sustinet – He Who Transplanted Still Sustains
Originally rendered as Sustinet qui transtulit on a seal brought from England to New England by Colonel George Fenwick in 1639, the realigned phrase was explained in 1775 as: “God, who transplanted us hither, will support us.” It might ultimately be a reference to Psalm 80, which speaks of a vine out of Egypt, transplanted to the Promised Land by God.
Delaware: Liberty and Independence
This motto was suggested by the Society of the Cincinnati, a hereditary organisation of descendants of officers from the American Revolutionary War, and underscores tiny Delaware’s huge importance in the start of that war, and consequently its pivotal role in establishing liberty as a cornerstone of American independence.
Florida: In God We Trust
First appeared on US coinage in 1864 and the nation’s official motto since an Act of Congress in 1956, this is also the state of Florida’s official motto – although only since 2006.It might be an adaptation of the line ‘In God is our trust’ in the US’s national anthem, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ by Francis Scott Key; or it might refer to In Deo Speramus (‘In God we hope’), the motto of Brown University, alma mater of president Lincoln’s personal secretary John Milton Hay.
Georgia: Wisdom, Justice, and Moderation
Georgia has two different mottos, one for each side of the Great Seal; the other one is Agriculture and Commerce. Since the side with the former motto is used
to officiate state documents (and since Tennessee also uses the latter motto), Wisdom, Justice and Moderation is generally considered to be Georgia’s state motto.
Hawaii: Ua Mau Ke Ea O Ka Aina I Ka Pono – The Life of the Land is Perpetuated in Righteousness
Adopted as the motto of the (independent) Kingdom of Hawaii in 1843, after it was used by King Kamehameha III upon the restoration of Hawaiian sovereignty by the British (who had usurped it for five months).
Idaho: Esto perpetua – Let It Be Eternal
Famous last words of Venetian theologian Fra Paolo (16/17th century), referring to his beloved home city (then still a powerful independent state). They also appear in the closing chapter of Jefferson Davis’ History of the Confederacy (1881), which might be the primary source for the state motto.
Illinois: State Sovereignty, National Union
This state motto is indicative of the tensions that simmered for much of the 19th century between pro-slavery states (using state sovereignty as a justification for maintaining the institution of slavery) and anti-slavery states (seeing the abolition of slavery as a matter of overriding concern for the unity of the nation). The motto was decreed in 1819; Illinois has just entered the Union as a free state, straight after Mississippi, and just before Alabama (both slave states). The balancing act expressed by Illinois’ motto was somewhat upset when in 1867 (shortly after the Civil War) it was proposed to reverse the wording to National Union, State Sovereignty, the proposal was rejected, but the amended seal now features the second part of the slogan slightly more prominent than in the first design.
Indiana: The Crossroads of America
Indiana had no state motto until the mid-1930s, when newspaper columnist J. Roy Strickland used his column ‘Paragraphy’ to start a campaign to find one. Hundreds of suggestions poured in, and a committee of five Indiana legislators selected the current motto (as always, it would be fun to have a look at the also-rans, but alas, the sources remain silent on this matter). “The Crossroads of America” was officially adopted by Joint Resolution No. 6 of the General Assembly of the House of Representatives of Indiana on March 2, 1937 – curiously, the resolution states that the phrase may be used “as the official State motto or slogan”…
Iowa – Our Liberties We Prize and our Rights We Will Maintain
Devised by a three-man committee of the State Senate and adopted as part of the state’s Great Seal upon its entry into the Union in 1846, Iowa’s motto has no (known) antecedents in literary antiquity.,
Kentucky: United We Stand, Divided We Fall
One of the most widely used mottos, traceable to two of Aesop’s Fables (The Four Oxen and the Lion, The Bundle of Sticks), used in Revolutionary War songs and since 1942 Kentucky’s official state motto. The slogan is/was also used on the Missouri flag, by Indian independentists, Ulster Unionists and many others.
Kansas Ad Astra per Aspera – To the Stars Through Difficulties
Often reversed to Per Aspera ad Astra or adapted further to Per Ardua ad Astra, this is a very popular Latin motto, also used by the Royal Air Force, NASA, several schools and universities, the former German Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, the Dutch city of Gouda (of cheese-making fame), Starfleet (in Star Trek) and on packs of Pall Mall cigarettes.
Louisiana: Union, Justice, Confidence
Specified in 1902 by governor W.W. Heard as part of the official state seal.
Maine: Dirigo – I Direct
Maine was once the only state to hold its presidential elections in September, leading to the saying: “As Maine goes, so goes the nation”.
Maryland: Fatti maschii parole femine – Strong Deeds, Gentle Words
This might sound like Latin, but it is in fact Italian – Maryland being the only state to have a motto in that language (and in an antiquated orthography too). It translates literally as ‘Manly deeds, womanly words’, which these days would be highly politically incorrect, as it conveys the same meaning as Teddy Roosevelt’s “Walk softly and carry a big stick”. Maryland state government translates the motto as “Strong deeds, gentle words”. The motto is that of the English Calvert family (the barons Baltimore), who founded the state in 1622 as an English colony reserved for catholics.
Massachusetts: Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem – By the Sword We Seek Peace, But Peace Only Under Liberty
In frequent use since 1775, but not (yet) adopted as an official state motto. Attributed to the father of English politician Algernon Sydney, in a letter to his son, and later included in Sydney (Jr)’s “Book of Mottoes”.
Michigan:Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice – If You Seek a Pleasant Peninsula, Look About You.
Adopted in 1835, possibly inspired by a tribute to architect Sir Christopher Wren, who rebuilt much of London after the Great Fire (1666), at St Paul’s, which he also rebuilt.
Minnesota: L’etoile du nord – The Star of the North
Chosen by the state’s first governor, Henry Hastings Sibley and adopted in 1861, and the origin of Minnesota’s nickname as the North Star State.
Mississippi:Virtute et armis – By Valor and Arms
May have been influenced by Lord Gray de Wilton’s motto: Virtute non armis fido (I trust in virtue, not arms).
Missouri: Salus populi suprema lex esto – The Welfare of the People Shall Be the Supreme Law
Taken from Book III of Cicero’s De Legibus (‘On the Laws’), and also the motto of Salford and Lewisham (both in the UK), and used by John Locke as the epigraph in his Second Treatise on Government.
Montana: Oro y plata – Gold and Silver
Conceived in 1865 to reflect Montana’s assets, and to have a nice ring to it (hence the Spanish), it defeated the proposition to make El Dorado (‘The Place of Gold’) the state’s motto.
Probably the best-known of all US state mottos, as it succinctly and boldly expresses the original essence of American independence. It originates with General John Stark, who in 1809 used it to decline an invitation to a reunion of the Battle of Bennington because of poor health. The entire message read: Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils. The stridency of the slogan opens it up to parody, such as Live Free or Don’t (used in Futurama) and Live Free or Cheap (The West Wing), its recognisability has even been used to provide the fourth in a series of Bruce-Willis-saves-the-world-yet-again vehicles with a name: Live Free or Die Hard.
Nebraska: Equality Before the Law
(No background information found)
Nevada: All For Our Country
Possibly the blandest of all state mottos, especially compared with the combative tone of the next one.
New Hampshire: Live Free or Die
New Jersey: Liberty and Prosperity
Derived from the two goddesses portrayed on the state’s Great Seal.
New Mexico: Crescit eundo – It Grows As It Goes
Without context, the motto sounds like an avant-slacker anthem. But it is a phrase originating in Book VI of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (‘On the Nature of Things’), where it describes the growing force of a thunderbolt.
New York: Excelsior – Ever Upward
Origin unknown. Possibly derived from the eponymous inspirational poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
North Carolina: Esse quam videri – To Be Rather than to Seem
From chapter 98 of Cicero’s essay De Amicitia (‘On Friendship’), where in its context is is used to mean the opposite: Virtute enim ipsa non tam multi praediti esse quam videri volunt: ‘Few are those who wish to be endowed with virtue rather than to seem so’. Sallustius however used it more positively in Bellum Catalinae, where he describes Cato the Younger as esse quam videri bonus malebat (‘he preferred to be good rather than to seem so’). The motto is particularly popular in educational circles, figuring as the motto of many schools, sororities and fraternities. It was adopted by North Carolina in 1893 – prior to that, it had been the only one of the original 13 states without a motto.
North Dakota: Liberty and Union, Now and Forever, One and Inseparable
A quote of Daniel Webster from his Second Reply to Hayne in the famous Webster-Hayne debate on the Senate floor in 1830 – and now the longest state motto of them all.
Ohio: With God, All Things are Possible
Despite judicial action by proponents of a separation of church and state, this remains Ohio’s motto, arguably the country’s most overtly religious. Deriving from Matthew 19:26, it was enacted in 1959 after remarkable lobbying by Jimmy Mastronardo, a 9 year old boy who travelled to the state capitol, registered as a lobbyist and campaigned for three years before the governor signed it into law.
Oklahoma: Labor omnia vincit – Labor Conquers All Things
A quote from Book I of Virgil’s Georgica, which supported Augustus’s campaign to encourage more Romans to become farmers. Also the motto of the American Federation of Labor, some cities and a truckload of schools.
Oregon: Aliis volat propriis – She Flies With Her Own Wings
First written in English (by Jesse Quinn Thornton, a local judge) and only then translated into Latin. It was officially adopted in 1854 (when Oregon was still a territory), and referred to a vote establishing a provisional government for the territory, independent of the US and Britain.
Pennsylvania: Virtue, Liberty and Independence
Adapted in 1875, taken from the state’s coat of arms, representing the fact that Pennsylvania was where the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Rhode Island: Hope
(no additional information found)
South Carolina: Dum spiro spero – While I Breathe, I Hope
In its brevity and elegance, this motto is a fine example of why Latin makes such a good language for mottos. The saying is attributed to Cicero, in his letters to Atticus, and to St Andrew. It has been adopted as a motto by the town of St Andrews in Scotland, and by the Hutt River Principality, an Australian (unrecognised) micronation (discussed earlier in on this blog). It also adorns the coat of arms of numerous families, among which the Scottish clan MacLennan and is used – possibly with a hint of irony – by the Asthma Sinus Allergy Program in Maryland’s Greater Baltimore Medical Center.
South Dakota: Under God the People Rule
Adopted as part of the state seal at the 1885 Constitutional Convention, on the suggestion of Rev. Joseph Ward (founder of Yankton College), this one strikes a fine balance between religion (as one of the great motivating forces of Americans) and democracy (requiring a separation of church and state).
Tennessee: Agriculture and Commerce
Appeared on the state’s Great Seal since 1801, but officially adopted as state motto only in 1987.
Refers to the state’s name, which derives from taysha, a Native American word meaning ‘friends’ or ‘allies’.
The concept of industry has for centuries been connected with the image of the beehive, which is a state symbol in Utah.
Vermont: Freedom and Unity
Adopted in 1788 for use on independent Vermont’s Great Seal, and re-approved upon its admission to the Union in 1791. The new US state’s first governor, Thomas Chittenden, cited the motto in his epitaph: “Out of storm and manifold perils rose an enduring state, the home of freedom and unity.”
Virginia: Sic semper tyrannis – Thus Always to Tyrants
Originally attributed to Marcus Junius Brutus, the assassin of Julius Caesar (March 15, 44 BC), later used by John Wilkes Booth as he shot dead president Lincoln (1865), and more recently by Timothy McVeigh, who wore a t-shirt with this motto (and with Lincoln’s picture) when he bombed the government building in Oklahoma City (1995). Usage of the motto by Virginia dates from 1776 and thus predates the latter two (mis)uses.
Washington: Alki – By and By
In 1851, the first settlers founded New York al-ki, which means “by and by” in the Chinook language.
West Virginia: Montani semper liberi – Mountaineers Are Always Free
The motto was suggested by Joseph H. DisDebar, the artist who created the state’s Great Seal, and was officially adopted in 1872. The Colombian city of Bucaramanga uses the same motto.
(no additional information found)
Wyoming: Equal Rights
In 1869, Wyoming was the first US state, and one of the first territories worldwide, to give women the right to vote. Hence the motto, celebrating Wyoming’s pioneering role in establishing women’s suffrage. One of the state’s nicknames is “Equality State”.