New Hampshire takes considerable pride in its memorable state motto, “Live Free or Die.” The New Hampshire motto has featured prominently on residents’ license plates since 1971 and on the reverse side of the official state quarter since 2000. For tourism purposes, however, New Hampshire typically tones it down a bit, presenting itself as the Granite State or the White Mountain State, or opting for the purely aspirational abbreviated version, “Live Free.” (They tend not to want to get too preachy in New Hampshire.)
New England State Mottos
Generally speaking, state mottos are a strange thing. Nearly half of the U.S. states, including four in New England, still use mottos in the original Latin. In 1820, Maine adopted the motto Dirigo, which translates as “I direct.” Since 1775, Massachusetts has used the more expansive Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem, which translates as something like “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty” (quite a mouthful). No one knows exactly when Connecticut adopted Qui transtulit sustinet (“He who transplanted sustains”), but it’s been in use in the region at least since the 1600s. Vermont had been happy with its English motto, “Freedom and Unity,” since 1778, but it must have felt left out of the Latin game: In 2015 it added a Latin co-motto, Stella quarta decima fulgeat, which translates as “May the 14th star shine bright.” In Rhode Island, they believe in keeping things simple, offering only the one-word motto “Hope.”
Compared with its New England neighbors, New Hampshire arrived late to the party. There was no motto included on the original state seal, and apparently no other pressing need for a motto presented itself until 1945, when New Hampshire adopted both the “Live Free or Die” motto and the state emblem on which it appears.
History of the New Hampshire Motto
The New Hampshire motto derives from a letter written by General John Stark on July 31, 1809. Stark was a New Hampshire–born war hero, having served as an officer in the British army during the French and Indian War and a major general of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Stark led troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill and later at the Battle of Bennington, where a strategic victory earned him the nickname “the Hero of Bennington.”
Thirty-two years later, Stark, then in failing health, was invited to a reunion of Battle of Bennington veterans, but he was not well enough to travel. He sent a letter in reply (the full text of which can be read in his son Caleb Stark’s 1860 book, Memoir and Official Correspondence of Gen. John Stark), noting that he’d never forget the troops he commanded in Bennington: “They were men that had not learned the art of submission, nor had they been trained to the art of war. But our astonishing success taught the enemies of liberty that undisciplined freemen are superior to veteran slaves.” As an afterword to the letter, Stark included a brief passage to be read as a toast to the veterans: “Live free or die. Death is not the greatest of evils.”
While Stark’s sentiment was heartfelt and powerful, it was hardly original. The lineage of statements proposing that freedom is worth dying for can be traced back through the ages. Vivre libre ou mourir (“Live Free or Die”) was a popular motto of the French Revolution, perhaps inspired by this passage in Louis-Sebastian Mercier’s 1771 French novel, The Year 2440: “Choose then, man! Be happy or miserable; if yet it be in thy power to choose: fear tyranny, detest slavery, arm thyself, live free, or die!” And in 1775, Patrick Henry closed his address during the Second Virginia Convention with the now-famous line “Give me liberty or give me death!” Going way back, the monument to the 1345 Battle of Warns in the Netherlands features a phrase that translates as “Better to be dead than a slave”—and it probably wasn’t a new thought then, either.
Some perceive the New Hampshire motto as severe, but it fits the fierce independence of the Granite State. Still, it nearly didn’t happen. In 1945, when the state finally decided to pick a motto, “Live Free or Die” did not run uncontested. The other finalists were “Strong and Steadfast as Our Granite Hills,” “Strong as Our Hills and Firm as Our Granite,” and “Pioneers Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.”
Good mottos, all, but General John Stark said it best for New Hampshire.
Are you a fan of the New Hampshire motto?