"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 speaks to 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 comes 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.
Stark may not have been the original author of the phrase. Vivre Libre ou Mourir ("Live free or die") was a popular motto of the French Revolution, which the politician Antoine Barnave had engraved on his buttons.
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.
He was convicted of breaking a state law against altering 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.
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.
"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, Brotherhood, 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.
"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 King Peter II of Yugoslavia signed a pact with the Axis powers.
On January 1, 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines proclaimed Haiti (Ayiti), 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 first Convention of the Delegates of the Scottish Friends of the People in Edinburgh on 11–13 December 1792 used the phrase "live free or die" and referred to it as a "French oath".
Original NH-style DEC UNIX license plate facsimile
"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. More recently, Linux novelty plates have been produced following the same pattern.
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 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, 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".