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Essay: How New Hampshire adopted its famous motto



For the Valley News
Friday, September 27, 2019

How did “Live Free or Die” become the New Hampshire state motto?

You might think it has something to do with our Revolutionary War roots and stingy political culture, but the historical record says otherwise. To understand this strange tale, let’s begin by understanding the popular origin story of “Live Free or Die.”

The oft-told version puts the words in the mouth of Revolutionary War hero Gen. John Stark. A hero of the Battle of Bennington in 1777, Stark declined to attend an 1809 reunion of combatants from that battle. Citing his poor health in his response to the invitation, Stark wrote, “Live free or die; Death is not the worst of evils.”

Invited one year later to attend another reunion of the battle, Stark again declined because of poor health. This time, however, the invitation referred specially to Stark’s phrase “Live Free or Die:” “The toast, sir, which you sent us in 1809, will continue to vibrate with unceasing pleasure in our ears.”

And oh, how that phrase resonates. Emblazoned on our license plates and border welcome signs, versions of those words have found their way into the names of more than 120 businesses in New Hampshire.

The phrase also seems to define our political culture. Democrats and Republicans alike cite it as either a rationale for or an obstacle to their policy proposals. Earlier this summer, in defending his veto of the bipartisan budget, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said, “Let’s remember what ‘Live Free or Die’ is all about.” At the same time, the left-leaning Marijuana Policy Project cited the same phrase this year in advocating for legalization of the drug: “Tell Gov. Sununu it’s time for the ‘Live Free or Die’ state to end marijuana prohibition!”

Unfortunately, neither Democrats nor Republicans today, and sadly perhaps many New Hampshire citizens, are aware of the circumstances that led to the adoption of this language as the state motto. The story has been forgotten and misunderstood, but the facts are clear enough: The state’s adoption of “Live Free or Die” had nothing to do with a political philosophy regarding limited government. Instead it has everything to do with a highly emotional moment in United States and New Hampshire history: the end of World War II in Europe.

Interestingly, it all began innocently enough, with a contest to coin a state motto.

At the end of 1944, The Manchester Union (a predecessor of today’s New Hampshire Union Leader, albeit with a different owner and editorial perspective) noted that New Hampshire was the last state in the country without a motto. The newspaper sponsored a public, statewide contest to solicit potential mottos. Under the terms of the contest, a panel of judges convened by the newspaper would review the entries, choosing one that would be forwarded to the New Hampshire Legislature, where it would be considered for adoption.

Public response to the contest was enormous. More than 1,500 people submitted some 3,500 entries. It took the committee of judges months to review the entries, and in late April 1945, the committee made its recommendation.

The winner was “Strong and Steadfast as the Granite Hills,” proposed by a then well-known writer from Gilmanton, Curtis Hidden Page.

A special Joint Committee of the House and Senate recommended “Strong and Steadfast as the Granite Hills,” relying on simple but persuasive logic. “Foremost in our minds was that New Hampshire is known as the Granite State,” said state Sen. R. Robert Matheson, of Goffstown, the committee’s chairman, in his remarks in support of Page’s submission. “Her chief attribute is everlastingly set upon a firm, strong and steadfast foundation, her everlasting hills.”

The state Senate approved Page’s motoo on Wednesday, April 25, 1945.

While adoption of a state motto was front-page news then, far more important events were taking place, across the Atlantic Ocean on the battlefields of World War II. “Reds Ring Berlin, Cross Elbe: Fantastic Battle Rages in Reich Capital; Hitler May Be Caught in Trap” read the headline of The Manchester Union on April 26, 1945.

Other stories that day suggested the War in Europe would soon be over: “VE Day To Be Proclaimed by Allied Chiefs of State.” Another story reported that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had fled his villa east of Milan, telling his staff the war was lost. Equally important was the headline heralding President Harry Truman’s address to delegates charged with creating the charter for the United Nations, in which he encouraged them to be “architects for a better world.”

These were dramatic and historic days for anyone engaged in the fight against totalitarianism and fascism. Just five years earlier, Hitler had begun his assault of Great Britain. On the day of the New Hampshire Senate’s motto vote, Hitler’s empire and its twisted political philosophy based on racial, religious and ethnic identity were nearing defeat. Allied victory seemed certain, but it came at a terrible cost. On the same day of its story about the Senate vote, The Manchester Union reported that 1,244 New Hampshire men had died so far in World War II.

Not surprisingly, amid the motto debate, the historic events in Europe caught the attention of at least one elected official: State Sen. Earl Hewitt, of Enfield, asked if a different phrase, “Live Free or Die,” had been considered as a motto.

Yes, responded Sen. Matheson, who nevertheless affirmed that “Strong and Steadfast” had the unanimous support of the Joint Committee.

A week later, on Wednesday, May 2, 1945, when the House met to consider the joint committee’s motto, the finality of “Strong and Steadfast” as a state motto came unglued. Rep. J. Walker Wiggin, of Manchester, led a floor flight to replace “Strong and Steadfast as the Granite Hills” with “Live Free or Die.” He spoke for 30 minutes and was followed by other representatives, who were supported by several patriotic organizations, including the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Context always matters in politics. At the same time as the motto debate unfolded in the House, the leading headlines in The Manchester Union reported news of earth-shaking consequences: “Berlin Falls, Soviets Report Hitler, Aides Took Own Lives” and “Axis Surrender Million Men to Allies.”

While not officially over, World War II in Europe essentially ended the same day Rep. Wiggin launched the floor fight over the state’s motto. If there was to be debate about “Live Free or Die” versus “Strong and Steadfast as the Granite Hills,” it would not be based on the rational merits of each proposed motto. Instead it became an emotional vote, heavily influenced by the truly historic events occurring thousands of miles away.

Indeed, The Manchester Union knew the tide had turned in this debate. Its reporter noted that “…even though a lengthy list of speakers scheduled to argue the respective merits of the suggestions before the House was curtailed sharply as it became obvious that the Stark quotation, a late-comer … would be approved.”

Put simply, “Strong and Steadfast as the Granite Hills” stood no chance against a motto coined by an American Revolutionary hero that embraced freedom on the day Hitler was defeated.

Surely this last-minute change was hard for some to accept. After all, there were some 3,500 entries in the state contest, a panel of esteemed judges who reviewed the entries, the reputation of the author of the proposed motto and the careful logic embraced by the joint committee that endorsed it. And yet it was not to be.

The New Hampshire House vote to adopt “Live Free or Die” was lopsided: 179 to 85. The Senate adopted the same motto unanimously the same day. “Live Free or Die” became New Hampshire’s motto later that month.

So given its accidental historical origin, how did “Live Free or Die” become such a strong, persistent phrase in New Hampshire political culture?

That is a story for another day, one that begins by explaining the confluence of several major events: the transition of The Manchester Union into the Manchester Union Leader, an arch-conservative newspaper that dominated the media and political landscape of the Granite State; the emergence in the early 1970s of New Hampshire’s “first in the nation” primary in the popular imagination; and the coincidental three-term tenure of a very conservative governor, Meldrim Thomson, of Orford, who both outraged and thrilled his political opponents and supporters with his pro-apartheid, anti-tax, pro-nuclear political philosophy.

All of which suggests that Republicans, Democrats, independents and ordinary citizens in New Hampshire ought to take caution in using the phrase “Live Free or Die” to explain our politics, since the historical record of its adoption suggests otherwise.

What does this mean for the future of New Hampshire politics?

It’s hard to predict, but let’s remember, in May 2003, the Old Man of the Mountain — a seemingly immovable stone configuration in New Hampshire‘s White Mountains that was often taken as a symbol of the state’s stolid conservatism — literally came apart and disintegrated.

Might “Live Free or Die” become similarly irrelevant?

In this vein, I am reminded of what the musician Joe Strummer said: “the future is unwritten.”

Peter Glenshaw lives in Lyme. He can be reached at pglenshaw@gmail.com.