All of the States’ State Mottos, Power-Ranked
By Jacob Hoerger and Michael Tolan
A State’s motto is a big deal. It’s like the first thing you check out about a hunk of land when you’re deciding whether you’d like to live there or you’re gonna swipe right into another domain. So it’s something you should spend time on, make sure you nail. Unfortunately, not all states are equally endowed with the ability to conjure up an appropriate introduction, and shame must be brought down on them. Therefore, we’ve spent an afternoon assembling for your lunchtime reading pleasure a smoking hot power ranking from 62 right down to numero uno of the best state mottos (which should not be confused for a state slogan or nickname, those are totally different and unimportant things). Now, if you’ve looked at a flag anytime recently you might remember there are only 62 states, but don’t worry, you haven’t missed any new additions. Our list goes from 62 because some states have multiples mottos. We’ve also, as a bonus to our beloved reader, included some U.S.-owned islands and territories and hope they feel good about not being left out. Now, without much further ado:
Civics Class Tricolon Grab Bag
62. Wisdom, Justice, and Moderation, Georgia
61. Union, Justice, and Confidence, Louisiana
60. Virtue, Liberty, and Independence, Pennsylvania
All these states are that guy who, when playing the “describe yourself in three adjectives” ice-breaker, selects “friendly, interesting, and nice.” Also, kind of a key component of a state motto is that it should tell you something representative about character of the state it’s supposed to be mottoing, but if someone told you a state was wise, just, and moderate, I’m guessing, there’d be at least 30 you’d choose before Georgia. Also, don’t call yourself “moderate” if you’re #5 on the highest alcohol consumption list. Louisiana’s only slightly better. Confidence is kinda like gusto and that’s like gumbo, which reminds one of Louisiana. “Liberty” and “Independence” do remind one of Pennsylvania, but they’re also like the same word.
Civics Class Bicolon Grab Bag
59. Liberty and Independence, Delaware
58. Liberty and Prosperity, New Jersey
57. Freedom and Unity, Vermont
56. State Sovereignty, National Union, Illinois
55. Agriculture and Commerce, Tennessee
The states in this batch were a bit more choosy, and it looks like Illinois and Tennessee both bought the expansion pack of Americana buzzwords before forging their mottos.The big interesting takeaway from the bottom of the barrel, though, is that almost all of the early states that tried to make mottos in English really stunk it up.
United We Come Up With a Motto
54. United We Stand, Divided We Fall, Kentucky I
53. United in Pride and Hope, Virgin Islands
52. Liberty and Union, Now and Forever, One and Inseparable, North Dakota
Props to Kentucky (a phrase I thought I’d never say) for pulling out an Aesop quotation. Wikipedia says it was later reintroduced into American parlance by founding father John Dickinson, WHO WAS THE PRESIDENT OF DELAWARE and also drafted the Articles of Confederation and namesakes Dickinson College. Both the Virgin Islands and North Dakota were originally destined to end up on the Bicolon Grab Bag tier, but the former felt bad for being so lazy so added a “United in,” whereas the latter couldn’t decided which two-part phrase to choose and so threw all their finalists at us.
51. In God We Trust, Florida
50. With God, All Things Are Possible, Ohio
49. Under God the People Rule, South Dakota
Florida gets a colossal call-out for that copy and paste job from the U.S. of A.’s motto itself. It’s first state motto was actually “In God is our Trust” but the legislature changed it, apparently to remove any confusion that trust was an object which the deity had eaten. This may sound silly but Floridians have eaten much weirder things (e.g. this or this), so the move was probably warranted. With Florida hogging “in,” Ohio and South Dakota were forced to move to more adventurous prepositions in their implications of divine providence. Also, a gracious thanks to Ohio for that clarifying comma after the introductory prepositional phrase. Otherwise, you may end up with mixed-up confusion (i.e. is “God the People” trying to be like a “Chance the Rapper”?).
Random Motto Generator
48. Equality Before the Law, Nebraska
47. Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain, Iowa
46. All for Our Country, Nevada
45. Live Free or Die, New Hampshire
Nebraska’s selection was made after it was concluded “Habeas Corpus” and “Ex Post Facto” just didn’t have the oomph the state was looking for. And God forbid you didn’t mistakenly think it was their rights their Iowans prized and their liberties they were trying to maintain. There’s nothing interesting to note about Nevada’s suck-up job (it’s a postbellum selection). New Hampshire sports probably the most well-known state motto of the lot, but suffers major demerits because it insists on putting in on EVERYTHING (state seal, state slogan, state Bruce Willis film). It’s like when I discovered Nutella was amazing and then it starting ending up not just on my crepes but my bagels and eggs and oatmeal and face and then it was out of control and no one was happy about it.
Keep it Simple, States
44. Forward, Wisconsin
43. Hope, Rhode Island
42. Equal Rights, Wyoming
41. The Union, Oregon II
40. Industry, Utah
39. Friendship, Texas
Sometimes, you just have a lot going on in life. Maybe you’re Wisconsin. The mosquitos in the summertime in Sauk City swamps are insufferable, and you just want to get out of there. “Forward!”, you yell, and it sticks because everyone’s too busy swatting mosquitos to give a shit about a state motto. If you’re Rhode Island, you’re probably too busy hoping that Connecticut doesn’t swallow you, because why else would the “Cooler and Warmer” state pick that as their motto? In Wyoming, you’re scrambling to avert a PR disaster after kicking out all the Native Americans, and your branding consultant tells you to pick a motto that doesn’t make you seem like a total jackass. Oregon’s too busy lighting signal flares out in the middle of nowhere, shouting “hey guys, don’t forget about me over here!” Utah’s the guy who works in the library on Saturday night and says he’s just got too much work going on to hang out with you. Meanwhile, Texas thinks that everyone there is friends, even though they’re too far apart to get into fights with one another about barbeque sauce and football. “Friendship” is also the literal translation of the Caddo Indian word “Teyshas”, from which Texas gets its name and means “friends” or “allies”, which makes sense given how friendly Texans were to their Native American neighbors.
Mane id simplex, civitates
38. Dirigo (I Direct), Maine
37. Tuebor (I Will Be Defended), Michigan I
36. Excelsior! (Ever Upward!), New York
“Dirigio”’s resemblance to “dirigible” is quite enough to let Maine slip past Michigan’s seal motto “Tuebor,” which kinda sounds like “tuber.” Normally, “Excelsior!” would be ranked higher, but ever since Jeb!’s doomed presidential run, self-imposed exclamations points aren’t playing well with focus groups. Also, I misremembered “Excelsior!” as “Excalibur!” at first, so now plain old “Excelsior!” seems disappointingly tame in comparison.
We Passed Latin 101
35. Ditat Deus (God Enriches), Arizona
34. Crescit eundo (It Grows as It Grows), New Mexico
33. Justitia Omnibus (Justice for All), District of Columbia
32. Regnat populus (the People Rule), Arkansas
31. Esto perpetua (Let it Be Perpetual), Idaho
Apparently the mottos of Arizona, New Mexico, and The District were all written by some guy from Rhode Island. They all run on the…shall we say, hopeful side of things. God enriches? Have you even been to Arizona? It’s a desert! It grows as it grows? Pretty sure New Mexico is also a desert. Justice for all? In the place with all the “TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION” bumper stickers? I’m not totally convinced this wasn’t actually just a promotional slogan for the similarly named 1988 Metallica album. Meanwhile Arkansas’s motto looks suspiciously like “pregnant populus”, which makes sense given Arkansas ranks 4th in teen pregnancy rate. Idaho gets points for using the rare Latin future imperative, but Missouri beat it to the punch, so it’s harder to take it seriously. Also, who’s going to go all the way out to mess with Idaho? Kind of a superfluous motto.
Oooh Look, Our County’s Multicutural!
30. L’etoile du Nord (the Star of the North; French), Minnesota
29. Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ‘Aina i ka Pono (The Life of the Land is Perpetuated in Righteousness; Hawaiian), Hawai’i (duh)
28. Al-ki (By and By; Chinook), Washington — Chinook
27. Samoa, Muamua Le Atua (Samoa, Let God Be First; Samoan), American Samoa
26. Eureka! (I Have Found It; Greek), California
25. Fatti maschi, parole femmine (Manly Deeds, Womanly Words; Italian), Maryland
24. Oro y plata (Gold and Silver; Spanish), Montana
Shouldn’t have made that tattoo of your now-ex-girlfriend permanent, Minnesota. Maybe just go back solely to your territorial motto so you won’t perpetually be reminded of the hockey team that left you and then just beat you in the playoffs. “It’s basically just Missouri’s,” says Tolan about Hawai’i’s, but he says that about every state’s so don’t read too much into that. We’re just gonna tuck “Al-ki” in the middle because not even our most profuse googling can figure out what “by and by” means (or, for that matter, why a state would mottofy it) so we don’t know how to evaluate it. As it happens, “God, let Samoas be first” is my motto when my mom is filling out our girl scout cookie order. California’s jebsclamation point is more acceptable since the word is known to us as an outburst. Not sure whether making our motto “manly deeds, womanly words” counts as a manly deed or a womanly word, but Maryland earns weird points for injecting gender politics into the otherwise neutral state motto landscape. Montana is the best of non-Latin foreign mottos, though, for the unexpectedly bold decision to stake its claim as the state for gold and silver when in fact Colorado, California, Nevada top it in that department (Also for going with Spanish when it currently is home to a larger population of buffaloes than Spanish speakers).
We Passed Latin 102
23. E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One), Michigan II
22. Deo Gratiam Habeamus (Let Us Give Thanks to God), Kentucky II
21. Nil Sine Numine (Nothing Without the Divine), Colorado
20. Virtute et Armis (Virtue and Arms), Mississippi
19. Labor Omnia Vincit (Hard Work Conquers All Things), Oklahoma
All of the states in this tier get points for passing Latin 102, which apparently teaches you to use one more word (three) than Latin 101 (two). That’s impressive! What’s less impressive is the creativity of some of these mottos. E pluribus unum? Really, Michigan? If you’re going to have THREE state mottos, you better have something better to say than what’s on the dollar. Kentucky and Colorado’s sound like things you’d say before Thanksgiving. Mississippi gets points for honesty, but there’s almost assuredly a typo. I’m pretty sure they meant “Virtue IN arms.” Of this grouping, Oklahoma easily has the most admirable. Not only does it tap into the Puritanical virtue in industry vibe, but Oklahomans can safely say they’ve fully executed their state motto (and state population) more than any other state. Have you been to Oklahoma? There’s nothing! Undoubtedly because their hard work has conquered literally everything in the state, so it’s nothing but flat and dusty fields.
Overheard at the capitol
18. Joannes Est Nomen Eius (John is his name), Puerto Rico
17. Dum spiro spero (While I breathe, I hope), South Carolina
Just cracking the top third of these rankings are Puerto Rico and South Carolina, whose statesmen drafted their mottos purely by accident. Because Puerto Rico is in Latin America (despite an angry Yahoo! Answers poster resoundingly declaring otherwise), they speak Latin in their legislature. During the session to determine the motto, the representative from Ponce asked his colleague from San Juan the name of the janitor. The representative from San Juan had inadvertently left his microphone on, and thus the motto was born. In South Carolina, one anti-ornithology inclined statesman was bitterly bemoaning the sparrows chirping noisily outside the capitol building, and grumbled “Dumb sparrows.” The scrivener tried to record what he said but, being a South Carolinian, misspelled the first word and then screwed up on the second so had to start again, although he got this wrong too. On another note, it appears the sparrow’s standing has been rehabilitated in Charleston; a bar called The Sparrow has 4.6/5 stars on Yelp.
16. Quae sursum volo videre (I Long to See What Is Beyond), Minnesota (Territory)
15. Audemus jura nostra defendere (We Dare Defend Our Rights), Alabama
14. Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem (“By the Sword We Seek Peace, But Peace Only Under Liberty”), Massachusetts
13. Salus populi suprema lex esto (Let the Welfare of the People Be the Highest Law), Missouri
“I long to see what is beyond” is basically like “eh, these lakes and woods are nice and all, but I’m kinda interesting in seeing some more interesting terrain so hopefully I can get the hell out of here.” Not exactly sure why you’d want that to be the motto of your territory, but Minnesota still hasn’t officially overridden it. The declaration of Alabama to boldly defend the rights of its citizens is slightly dubious given the state’s record on that front. Massachusetts motto is too wordy for our tastes, but understandable given it’s what produced he-of-the-long-face-and-longer-sentences John Kerry. Missouri makes us all proud by earning Cicero points and employing the ultra-rare holographic future imperative tense.
12. Strength from the Soil, North Dakota
11. The Crossroads of America, Indiana
10. Where America’s Day Begins, Guam
9. North to the Future, Alaska
One good marker of a good American state motto is whether it could double as an advertising slogan, and these all foot the bill as plausible moniker for either coffee grounds or amusement parks or like a movie tagline or something.
So good, you’d think a true artist came up with it
8. Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice (If You Seek a Pleasant Peninsula, Look About You), Michigan III
7. Puella, facis ut mihi esse fideli difficile sit tua labia angeli (Girl, You Make It Hard To Be Faithful with the Lips of an Angel), Northern Mariana Islands
6. Montani semper liberi (Mountaineers Are Always Free”), West Virginia
5. Ad astra per aspera (Through Darkness to the Stars), Kansas
(Turns out one did).
Summa Cum Laude
4. Qui transtulit sustinet (He Who Transplanted Sustains), Connecticut
3. Esse quam videri (To Be Rather than to Seem), North Carolina
2. Alis volat propriis (She Flies with Her Own Wings), Oregon II
- Sic semper tyrannis (Thus Always to Tyrants), Virginia
We now know what makes a crummy motto. So what makes a good one? For one, it’s gotta be in Latin — that makes it sound fancy. Second, it can’t be too long, ’cause ain’t no one got time for verbosity. Most importantly, it’s catchy: it makes you lean forward. provokes more than it resolves. Connecticut’s motto provokes one to wonder what’s being transplanted where and what this has to do with Connecticut and also reminds one of eggplant which is still yet underrated unless it’s being paired with parm. North Carolina’s motto makes you stare into your soul and consider hey maybe i’m just a big stupid faker all along. Oregon’s makes you stare at the outline of the state and consider for the first time, hey maybe that little nub at the top left is the wing, a kind of foreshortened kind a la Finding Nemo. And then there’s our favorite, Virginia (apparently it gobbled up all the creativity from the other early states weren’t using). In ordinary parlance, “Thus always to tyrants” makes little sense. The motto provokes you to retrieve the context to make sense of it, which is that it’s what Brutus said after he killed Caesar. It’s a warning shot to once and future tyrants, equally harkening to the tyranny that prompted our revolution as well as to the corruptors of current times. Plus, it’s got some great sonic features — the alliteration of the ‘s’s, the unstressed syllables in the middle after two loud opening stresses, the symmetry of “si->is.” Fun to say, no?