Wednesday, August 26, 2015

"Live Free or Die," a Brief History

“Live Free or Die” is the state motto of my native New Hampshire and it is without even a remote challenger the best of all of the state mottos. But where did it come from? Like so many good things, it came in the mail.

General John Stark, New Hampshire’s most celebrated Revolutionary War figure, composed the phrase in a toast denoting the anniversary of a victorious battle, but he was too ill to deliver it in person so he sent it in a letter to be recited at the event. “Live free or die,” his toast read. “Death is not the worst of all evils.”

That second part would look great on the license plate too.

As a small child growing up in Manchester, New Hampshire, I have distant memories of playing in Stark Park, marveling at the stacked, painted cannonballs and concrete-filled Revolutionary War cannon, imagining a battle with General John leading the charge and me loading cannonball after cannonball into these great guns and annihilating rows of redcoats. Had I known at six years old that it was he who had uttered those words that had at first frightened and then invigorated me, I might have joined ROTC in grammar school.

The identical phrase, “Vivre libre ou mourir,” was popular during the French Revolution, so it is likely that our man Stark lifted it from them. “Live Free or Die” was accepted as the state motto in 1945 and it immediately appeared on the new emblem and soon enough, on the license plates, which as the great Bill Morrisey pointed out, are often made by prison inmates.

New Hampshire. The gnarly motto, the craggy White Mountains, the inhospitable winters, the now-fallen Old Man of the Mountain, all conspire to make New Hampshire’s mind-blowing beauty and deeper-than-wide conception of community a little rough-hewn, something you have to do a little work for, but once you do that work and experience the richness of living in New Hampshire, then you know a depth of human experience I have never felt anywhere else. So a big “Live Free or Die” shout-out to all of my friends back home in New Hampshire from me out here in California, where our state motto is “Eureka.”