I learned recently that North Carolina’s state motto, translated from the Latin, is “To be, rather than to seem.”
Oh my! A good sentiment, but the motto seems to have something of an edge to it. Then I learned that North Carolinians sometimes describe their state, with tongue-in-cheek pride, as “a vale of humility between two mountains of conceit.” Those mountains would be Virginia and South Carolina.
Some state mottos are doozies, starting, in alphabetical order, with Alabama; its motto is “We dare defend our rights.” It was adopted in 1923, 58 years after the end of the Civil War. The motto of its neighbor, Mississippi, is “By valor and arms.” It was adopted in 1894.
Massachusetts’ motto references war and liberty, too, but with a very different tone. It is translated, “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.” It also comes from a different context: it was adopted in 1775.
West Virginia broke off from Virginia in the middle of the Civil War and joined the Union; its mountainous topography and its economy differed dramatically from the rest of Virginia, and so slavery wasn’t prevalent there. Its motto, adopted when it broke away in 1863, is “Mountaineers are always free.”
Wyoming’s motto, adopted in 1893 just three years after it became a state, is “Equal Rights.” Wyoming was the first state to grant women the right to vote. A number of new western states gave women the vote in order to encourage people to move west.
North Dakota, perhaps the epicenter of frenzied fracking, only adopted its Latin motto in 2011. It translates, “One sows for the benefit of another age.”
New Hampshire’s famous motto, “Live Free or Die,” was adopted only in 1945; it reflects the Granite State’s historical small-government attitude. Vermont’s motto, “Freedom and Unity,” suggests the need for a balance between freedom and some kind of social contract — the fact that liberty can only exist within the rule of law. If people lived entirely free, without any restraints, you’d have only the law of the jungle.
Montana’s motto is Spanish for “Gold and silver.” In a similar vein, as it were, California’s is “Eureka,” Greek meaning, “I have found it!” It refers to the discovery of gold in California.
In the staggeringly lame department, in my opinion, is Michigan’s: “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” It dates, surprisingly, from 1835.
I like Washington’s motto, a Chinook word meaning, “Bye and bye.” It suggests hope for the future.
My favorite state motto is Hawaii’s. It’s in Hawaiian, and it translates, “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” Isn’t that beautiful? Perhaps, if we lived a bit lighter on the land and a bit more righteously, the life of the land and humans’ lives wouldn’t be threatened by catastrophic climate change.
Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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