"Live Free or Die" is the official motto of the U.S. state of New Hampshire, adopted by the state in 1945. It is possibly the best-known of all state mottos, partly because it conveys an assertive independence historically found in American political philosophy and partly because of its contrast to the milder sentiments found in other state mottos.
The phrase was adopted from a toast written by General John Stark, New Hampshire's most famous soldier of the American Revolutionary War, on July 31, 1809. Poor health forced Stark to decline an invitation to an anniversary reunion of the Battle of Bennington. Instead, he sent his toast by letter:
- Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.
By the time Stark wrote this, Vivre Libre ou Mourir ("Live free or die") was already a popular motto of the French Revolution. The English romantic poet William Wordsworth also adopted this Revolutionary motto when he composed the line, “We must be free or die, who speak the tongue that Shakespeare spoke”.
In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705, that the State of New Hampshire could not prosecute motorists who chose to hide part or all of the motto. That ruling came about because George Maynard, a Jehovah's Witness, covered up "or die" from his plate. "By religious training and belief, I believe my 'government' – Jehovah's Kingdom – offers everlasting life. It would be contrary to that belief to give up my life for the state, even if it meant living in bondage." Pursuant to these beliefs, the Maynards began early in 1974 to cover up the motto on their license plates.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6–3 in his favor and likened Maynard's refusal to accept the state motto with the Jehovah's Witness children refusing to salute the American flag in public school in the 1943 decision West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.
"We begin with the proposition that the right of freedom of thought protected by the First Amendment against state action includes both the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all," Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote for the majority in Maynard.
"Here, as in Barnette, we are faced with a state measure which forces an individual, as part of his daily life indeed constantly while his automobile is in public view to be an instrument for fostering public adherence to an ideological point of view he finds unacceptable.
"The fact that most individuals agree with the thrust of New Hampshire's motto is not the test; most Americans also find the flag salute acceptable," Burger wrote.
The Supreme Court concluded that the state's interests paled in comparison to individuals' free expression rights.
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A possible source of such mottoes is Patrick Henry's famed March 23, 1775, speech to the House of Burgesses (the legislative body of the Virginia colony), which contained the following phrase: "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"
A medal struck at Matthew Boulton's Soho Mint, as tokens of exchange for the Paris firm of Monneron Freres, 1791–92, has on its obverse the motto Vivre libres ou mourir ("Live free or die" in French). A mention of "vivre libre ou mourir" occurs in 1754 Memoires by Chalopin.
During the Siege of Barcelona (25 August 1713 – 11 September 1714) the Barcelona defenders and the Maulets used black flags with the motto "Live free or die", in Catalan "Viurem lliures o morirem". Now it is used as a symbol of Catalan independentism.
The phrase "Antes morrer livres que em Paz sujeitos" (English: Rather die free than in peace be subjugated) is contained in a 1582 letter reply to King Phillip II of Spain from the Portuguese Corregidor (Governor) of the Azores, Ciprião de Figueiredo, still faithful to the Portuguese King-in-Exile, António, Prior of Crato. It has been adopted as the Azores motto and is present in the autonomous region's Coat-of-Arms.
The Declaration of Arbroath of 1320, the document in which the Scottish nobility appealed to Pope John XXII to recognise Scotland's independence from England, contains the oft-cited line, "It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself."
- "Ελευθερία ή Θάνατος" (Eleutheria i thanatos – "Freedom or death") is the national motto of Greece and comes from the motto of the Greek War of Independence (1821–1830).
- "Մահ կամ Ազատություն" ("Mah kam Azatutiun" - "Freedom or death") was the motto of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation during the movement for Armenia's independence.
- "Libertad o Muerte" – "Liberty or Death" is the national motto of Uruguay. "Libertad o con gloria morir" ("Thou liberty or die in glory") is part of the National Anthem of Uruguay.
- "Independência, ou morte!" – "Independence or death", was the national motto of the Brazilian Empire.
- "Ya istiklal ya ölüm" - "Independence or death", was the motto of the Turkish resistance during the Turkish National Movement and the Turkish Liberation War.
- "Eala Frya Fresena" – "Rise up, Free Frisians", according to Tilemann Dothias Wiarda (1777) spoken at the Upstalsboom in Aurich in Later Middle Ages. Since the middle of the 19th century Frisian nationalists tend to answer it with "Lewwer duad üs Slaav", or "Better dead than a slave."
- "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, ou la mort" – "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death" was the early motto of the French Revolution. Later versions dropped "ou la mort". The full motto is still displayed above the entrance of the Hotel de Ville in Troyes.
- "Better to die than to be a coward" (कांथर हुनु भन्दा मर्नु राम्रो – Kaayar hunnu bhanda marnu ramro) (Nepali). This is a motto in Nepal and is the motto of the British Army regiment the Royal Gurkha Rifles, which coincidentally used to have its UK base in the county of Hampshire.
- "Ӏожалла я маршо" ("Jozhalla ya marsho") - "Death or Freedom", The national anthem and slogan of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, 1991-1996.
- "Bolje grob nego rob, Bolje rat nego pakt" – "Better the grave than a slave, better a war than the pact" was the motto of Yugoslav demonstrators during the Yugoslav coup d'état of 1941, which started when the Yugoslav government signed a pact with the Axis powers.
- "Воля України або смерть" – "Volya Ukrayiny abo smert" – "Freedom of Ukraine or death" was a motto of Ukrainian rebels of Kholodny Yar republic during Ukrainian War of Independence and later one of the mottos adopted by the protesters of Euromaidan.
On January 1, 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines proclaimed Haiti, then a French slave colony, to be free and independent. Dessalines is said to have torn the white section from the French tricolor flag while shouting, "Vivre libre ou mourir!", which means "live free or die."
The phrase "Vivre Libre ou Mourir" ("live free or die") was used in the French Revolution. It was the subtitle of the journal by Camille Desmoulins, titled Le Vieux Cordelier, written during the winter of 1793–4.
"Live Free or Die" is popular among Unix users, a group which also cherishes its independence. The popularity dates to the 1980s, when Armando Stettner of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) had a set of Unix license plates printed up and given away at a USENIX conference. They were modeled on the license plates in New Hampshire, where DEC's Unix Engineering Group was headquartered. Stettner lived in New Hampshire at the time and used the vanity license plate UNIX. When DEC came out with its own Unix version, Ultrix, they printed up Ultrix plates that were distributed at trade shows.
In popular culture
- Live Free or Die is the title of a 1990 novel by New Hampshire writer Ernest Hebert.
- Live Free Or Die is the first book in John Ringo's Troy Rising science fiction series.
- Live Free or Die is the title of a book of essays by Gardner Goldsmith.
- In the early 2000s, Avengers comics had a storyline called "Live Kree or Die". It featured the alien race called the Kree.
- "Live Free or Die" is the title of the sixth episode of the sixth season of the TV show The Sopranos. It concerns a captain in the New Jersey mafia who hides in New Hampshire after being outed as a homosexual.
- On The West Wing, Josh jokes that Wisconsin's state motto is "Live Brie or Die." In another episode, the character Sam joked: "New Hampshire. Live free or cheap."
- On Futurama, the apathetic Neutral Planet has the motto: "Live free or don't."
- "Live Free or Die" is the title of the first episode of the fifth season of Breaking Bad.
- The episode "Live Kree or die" from The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes is a play on the motto
- "Live Free or Die" is the title of a National Geographic Channel show premiering on September 30, 2014.
- Live Free or Die, a 2000 documentary about abortion
- Live Free or Die, a 2006 comedy movie
- Live Free or Die Hard, a 2007 movie, the fourth in the Die Hard series
- Live Free or Die, a 2004 album by Vancouver punk group D.O.A.
- Bill Morrissey wrote a song titled "Live Free or Die" about the irony of a prisoner serving time in New Hampshire's jails and hand-stamping license plates with the state motto. The song appeared on his first single. It was covered by Hayes Carll on his 2002 album Flowers and Liquor.
- The song "Live Free", by Jay Farrar, begins with the line "Lookin' for the right kind of live free or die". It appears on the Son Volt album "Trace".
- "Vivre Libre ou Mourir" ("Live Free or Die") by Bérurier Noir, a French punk rock band
- "CHAPTER 3 STATE EMBLEMS, FLAG, ETC". Gencourt.state.nh.us. Retrieved 2013-06-21.
- Simon Schama. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. p. 557
- The line appears in the poem "It is not to be Thought of"
- "State emblems, flag, etc/". Retrieved 12 August 2014.
- State of New Hampshire. "CHAPTER 261 CERTIFICATES OF TITLE AND REGISTRATION OF VEHICLES 261:75 (II) Number Plates". State of New Hampshire. Retrieved 2014-08-25.
- Doug Linder. "Wooley vs Maynard". Law.umkc.edu. Retrieved 2013-06-21.
- "George Maynard recalls license-plate ordeal, free-speech victory". freedomforum.org. Retrieved 2013-06-21.
- Robinson, Randall, An Unbroken Agony, 2007, Basic Civitas Books
- Dorestant, Noe, "A Look at Haitian History 1803–2003; 200 Years of Independence", Heritage Kompa Magazine, Special Independence Edition, 2001
- Schama, Simon, Citizens, 1989, Vintage Books, pg 557
- Bewley, Christina, Muir of Huntershill, Oxford University Press, 1981, p.47
- The History of the UNIX License Plate