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The Stories Behind 7 State Mottos

Get the surprising stories behind these mottos.

1. “Hope” — Rhode Island

Rhode Island State Seal. (Credit: Kenneth Wiedemann/Getty Images)

Rhode Island State Seal. (Credit: Kenneth Wiedemann/Getty Images)

Rhode Island’s first European settlers were religious leaders expelled from Massachusetts for failing to follow the Puritan colony’s theocratic government. Roger Williams arrived in 1636, and was joined two years later by a group led by the recently banished Anne Hutchinson. In 1644, Williams was able to win colonial recognition for the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, an amalgamation of his and several neighboring settlements. Rhode Island was the first American colony to guarantee freedom of conscience and an early version of separation of church and state. Its first official seal, which later would become the state’s, featured an anchor and the motto “Hope”—likely a Biblical reference to Hebrews 6:18-19, which describes early Christians as “we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us … as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”

2. “Liberty and Union, Now and Forever, One and Inseparable” — North Dakota

North Dakota State Seal in Memorial Hall. (Credit: Richard Cummins/Getty Images)

North Dakota State Seal in Memorial Hall. (Credit: Richard Cummins/Getty Images)

Adopted at the height of the Civil War, North Dakota’s motto quotes verbatim from an 1830 Senate debate between Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina. Although the topic of the debate related to the details of protectionist tariffs, Webster’s speech had become one of the most famous pieces of American oratory. Webster countered Hayne’s claims that South Carolina could nullify federal laws if its people disagreed. Webster’s robust and eloquent defense of federal powers and national unity must have resonated with the Dakota territorial legislature, who adopted the motto in 1863.

3. “Sic Semper Tyrannis” — Virginia

Virginia state seal. (Credit: Ariel Skelley/Getty Images)

Virginia state seal. (Credit: Ariel Skelley/Getty Images)

The official motto of Virginia links two of history’s most famous political assassinations: the stabbing of Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 B.C. and the shooting of Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865. “Sic semper tyrannis”—“thus always to tyrants!” is the phrase attributed to Marcus Junius Brutus, the most famous of the group of Roman senators who assassinated Caesar after he seized perpetual dictatorial powers in the Roman Republic. Virginia’s seal was adopted in 1776, and its design encapsulates the revolutionary fervor of the day—a bare-chested, female Virtue stands over a toppled and de-crowned Tyranny. Eighty-eight years later, just five days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, noted actor and Confederate partisan John Wilkes Booth reportedly shouted “Sic semper tyrannis!” after shooting Lincoln in the Presidential box of Ford’s Theatre.

4. “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ‘Āiena i ka Pono” — Hawaii

The ancient Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of Hawaii. (Credit: Sheldon Levis/Getty Images)

The ancient Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of Hawaii. (Credit: Sheldon Levis/Getty Images)

Hawaii has one of only two state mottos in an indigenous language (Washington is the other). Polynesians had first arrived in the Hawaiian Islands around A.D. 500, but the islands were only united as a single kingdom in 1810, under Kamehameha I. Throughout the 19th century, Hawaii’s rulers dealt with French, Russian, British and American interests who sought to control the islands. In 1843, Lord George Paulet sailed a British warship to Honolulu to investigate some legal troubles faced by British subjects in Hawaii. When Kamehameha III proved insufficiently cooperative, Paulet took control of the islands. The British rule lasted just five months, until Paulet’s commander arrived to undo the unauthorized annexation. Kamehameha III’s words during the ceremony, which became the state’s motto, are generally translated as meaning “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness,” though the word “pono” can also mean goodness, excellence, order, completeness, care, purpose or hope.

5. “Eureka” —California

California State Seal mosaic. (Credit: iStock.)

California State Seal mosaic. (Credit: iStock.)

The story of king’s quandary and a fortuitous bath gives California its state motto, which is the only one in the United States that comes from Greek. Archimedes was a renowned but eccentric mathematician who lived in the Greek colony of Syracuse in the third century B.C. The story goes that when his king asked him to prove that a goldsmith had made a crown from adulterated metal, Archimedes was stumped until he stepped into a bathtub, noticed the water level rise and realized that he could measure the crown’s volume by seeing how much water it displaced. He was so excited he leapt from the tub and ran naked through the streets, shouting “Eureka!” (“I’ve found it!”). One of California’s first U.S. military governors included the phrase when he designed California’s seal in 1849 at the height of the Gold Rush and in the midst of California’s rapid two-year transition from a sleepy Mexican backwater to a full-fledged U.S. state.

6. “Fatti Maschii, Parole Femine” — Maryland

Maryland State Flag. (Credit: WilliamSherman/Getty Images)

Maryland State Flag. (Credit: WilliamSherman/Getty Images)

Every state except for Maryland has a motto that is either in a classical language or in one with obvious connections to its history. Maryland’s, on the other hand, is an archaic Italian phrase whose translation, “Manly Deeds, Womanly Words,” is something of head-scratcher. Its link to the state is that it was the motto of the Calvert family, the English Catholic barons who founded the Maryland colony in 1632.

7. “Equal Rights” — Wyoming

Wyoming Flag. (Credit: Classix/Getty Images)

Wyoming Flag. (Credit: Classix/Getty Images)

In 1869 the Wyoming Territorial Legislature approved a measure granting women the right to vote, serve on juries and hold public office. Although New Jersey had granted voting rights to unmarried property-owning women from 1777 to 1807, Wyoming’s law was the first to apply to all women in a state or territory. At the time, Wyoming’s small population and frontier pragmatism made its pioneering early push for equal rights possible. Back east, where the women’s suffrage movement had been active for decades, Susan B. Anthony quickly issued a call (largely unheeded) for women to migrate to Wyoming en masse.

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