Live free or die

From Academic Kids

"Live free or die" is the official motto of New Hampshire, adopted by the state Legislature in 1945. It is probably the best-known of all state mottos, partly because it speaks to an aggressive independence inherent in the American dream, and partly because of its contrast to the mild sentiments usually found in such slogans.

The phrase comes from a toast written by Gen. John Stark in July 31, 1809. Poor health had forced Stark, New Hampshire's most famous soldier of the American Revolutionary War, to decline an invitation to an anniversary reunion of the Battle of Bennington. Instead he sent the toast, which said in full: "Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils."

A similar motto from the American Revolutionary War was "Unite or Die". A possible source of both 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 line:

"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!"

Similar mottoes exist around the world. "Eleftheria i thanatos" ("Liberty or Death") is the national motto of Greece and comes from the motto of the Greek War of Independence (18211830).

Legal battle

In 1971, the New Hampshire Legislature mandated that the phrase appear on all non-commercial license plates, replacing "Scenic".

In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705, that New Hampshire could not prosecute motorists who chose to hide part or all of the slogan on license plates. George Maynard, a Jehovah's Witness, cut off "or die" from his plate for religious reasons, and was convicted of breaking the state law that required the motto. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in his favor, saying the law required people to "use their private property as a 'mobile billboard' for the State's ideological message," and that the state's interest did not outweigh free speech principles.

The case drew widespread attention, partly because of the irony involved with a government denying somebody the freedom to change a slogan that celebrates freedom.

Use in Unix

Live Free or Die is popular among the nerd set, a group which also cherishes its independence. This 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 had recently opened a branch office. When DEC came out with their own Unix version, Ultrix, they followed Stettner's lead and printed up a legion of Ultrix plates that were distributed at trade shows.


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