10 Strangest State Mottos

For today’s Friday History List, I look at state mottos, which as it turns out, can be fairly inscrutable at times. I started out intending to do a “Best State Mottos” list, but it soon became clear that weird mottos were far more common than good ones. Here are ten for you to wrap your mind around, plus a bonus territorial motto:

10. South Carolina - Dum spiro spero, While I breathe, I hope. Adopted way back in 1777, this motto seems like the plea of a desperate individual, someone who knows that things are always gong to be terrible, but still clings to vain hope. “Honey, pack the wagon, we’re moving to the land of futile optimism!” Plus, it’s just fun to say in Latin.

9. Maryland - Fatti maschii, parole femine, Manly Deeds, Womanly Words. The nation’s only Italian motto was added in the obviously sexist year of 1874. Having lived here all my life, I’ve never been sure if this was a criticism of diplomacy or an endorsement of balance. A few years back, feminist groups petitioned to have the phrase retranslated to be less offensive. Perhaps something more reflective of domestic reality should be considered, such as “Manly Deeds directly follow repeated Womanly Words.”

8. Montana - Oro y plata, Gold and Silver. The only state motto in Spanish, this motto apparently reflects what the founding fathers of Montana hoped would be eventually associated with their state. Now that enough time has passed to measure it against reality, they should change it to “Big and Empty.”

7. New Hampshire - Live Free or Die. You would think that this motto was adopted during the American Revolution, but it actually wasn’t officially added until 1945, just as the Cold War was starting. I guess the fear of Commies taking over New Hampshire must have been pretty intense back then.

6. Idaho - Esto perpetua, Let It Be Perpetual. This meditative thought became the state’s motto in 1890. Let what be perpetual? Potatoes? We’re never told. From this point on in my list, the state mottos start to get pretty incomprehensible.

5. Washington - Al-ki, By and By. Washington’s state motto is a old Chinook saying; I’m guessing this must have been the least offensive option out of some really terrible choices like, “My God, will this rain ever stop?”

4. Kansas - Ad astra per aspera, To the stars through difficulties. Born with Kansas’ addition to the Union in 1861, this motto perhaps reflects on the state persevering through its recent bloody past to achieve statehood. On the other hand, it could look forward to the U.S. space program a century later.

3. New Mexico – Crescit eundo, It Grows As It Goes. Picked in 1887, long before New Mexico was a state, this may be our most ironic state motto since next to nothing grows in the deserts of New Mexico, one of the “dustbowl” states of the Great Depression. They probably should change it to “It Doesn’t Grow And Then We Go.”

2. Oregon – Alis volat propriis, She flies with her own wings. Way back in 1854, Oregon was so busy setting up their new state government that they allowed a eight-year old girl to write their state motto…at least, that’s what I’m guessing.

1. Connecticut - Qui transtulit sustinet, He who transplanted sustains. Our oldest state motto, created in 1662, has survived over three centuries despite being perfectly ambiguous, just like Connecticut itself, which, as one drives along I-95, could be mistaken for a large county in New York, or maybe Massachusetts.

Bonus Territory: Puerto Rico – Joannes Est Nomem Ejus, John Is His Name. Adopted way back in 1511, it barely edged out the runner-up, “Bingo Is His Name-O.”

Ranking the Most Important Constitutional Amendments (post-Bill of Rights)

For today’s History List, I look at the lesser known amendments to our constitution that were ratified after the Bill of Rights. (Everyone knows the 1st and 5th amendments, but what about the 23rd?) I rank them as to how important they are today, not necessarily how important they were at the moment they were ratified.

And away we go:

1. 13th Amendment – Ratified almost immediately after the end of the Civil War, this abolished slavery in the United States, removing America’s original sin and fundamentally changing the nation’s character. Without this, the United States would have lacked the moral gravitas to act as a force for civil rights around the world.

2. 14th Amendment – Makes the citizenship of former slaves part of the constitution, removing any potential legal challenges or clever legislative devices to deny the benefits of freedom to those formerly held as slaves. This amendment was largely a reaction to the attempts of Southern states to so restrict the movements and activities of African-Americans as to return them to something very much like slavery.

3. 15th Amendment – Makes it unconstitutional to restrict voting based on race. Another Reconstruction amendment codifying the rights of former slaves.

4. 19th Amendment – Makes it unconstitutional to restrict voting based on gender. Giving women the right to vote took until 1920 – fifty years after African-Americans got the vote.

5. 24th Amendment – Another voting rights act, this time making it unconstitutional to compel voters to pay a tax in order to vote. These “poll taxes” were applied to Southern blacks as a way to discourage their voting. This amendment wasn’t passed until 1964, almost 100 years after the Civil War.

6. 16th Amendment – Allows a federal income tax. We may hate it, but this is how the massive machine that is our government gets paid for.

7. 12th Amendment – In the election of 1800 Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, running mates in the Presidential election, tied in electoral votes. (In those days, vote-getter #1 became President, while the runner-up became Vice-President.) The contest went to the House of Representatives, where Burr almost wrested the presidency from Jefferson.  This amendment straightened out the process, making it clear to electors who was running for President and who was running for Vice President.

8. 17th Amendment – United States Senators used to be selected by state legislatures. This amendment elects them by a direct vote of the people.

9. 21st Amendment – repeals the 18th amendment (prohibition of alcohol), ending the gangster era and bringing drunkards out of closet.

10. 22nd Amendment- Ratified in 1951 as a response to Franklin Roosevelt being elected four times, this amendment restricts the President to two terms of office. This amendment had the unintentional effect of making every two-term president a “lame duck,” with limited power and influence. In reality, a president has a term and a half to get his agenda passed, after that, forget about it.

11. 25th Amendment – Clarified the order of Presidential succession. Here it is, in case you were wondering:

Office Currently Held By
1 Vice President Joe Biden
2 Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi
3 President pro tempore of the Senate Robert Byrd
4 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
5 Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner
6 Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
7 Attorney General Eric Holder
8 Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar
9 Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack
10 Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke
11 Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis
12 Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius
13 Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan
14 Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood
15 Secretary of Energy Steven Chu
16 Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
17 Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki
18 Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano

12. 26th Amendment – In 1971, the voting age was dropped to 18, immediately causing millions of young Americans to ignore it.

13. 11th Amendment – Prevents states from being sued by citizens. Can you imagine how hopelessly clogged our court system would be if you could sue the government?

14. 23rd Amendment – In 1961, the voters of Washington, D.C. finally got included in the Electoral College. Democrats have been thankful ever since.

15. 27th Amendment – This amendment, which was only ratified in 1992, says that any Congressional pay raise (or decrease) cannot take effect until the next Congress is seated. In 1873, Congress tried to give themselves a 50% pay raise, backdated to the beginning of their terms! This ruse failed when the public caught wind of it.

16. 20th Amendment – Presidents used to be sworn in on March 4th, but with travel being much faster than it was in Washington’s day, this amendment changed the date to January 20, with Congress being sworn in on January 3.

17. 18th Amendment – (Prohibition of alcohol) This amendment tried to legislate morality and failed, giving rise to an era of speakeasies, gangsters and classic movies about speakeasies and gangsters. The 21st Amendment repealed it.

As A Teenager in Iceland (While The Orioles Win The Series)

The flag of Iceland, in the Flag Court at the Commons

I’ve only been to one foreign country in my entire life, and I had to miss watching the Orioles win the World Series to get there, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

In the summer of 1983, I was a nineteen-year old working in passenger service for Butler Aviation (handled today by Signature Flight Support) at BWI Airport. I was one of perhaps a dozen pax service reps, with a number of kids my age, and we acted as the on-site crew for charter flights and airlines with limited service, such as Air Jamaica and Icelandair. It was a pretty good group, mixing youth with experience and we were good at what we did. Generally, we had a great time, mixing in laughter with the work, meeting interesting people from around the world, in the easy days before international airports were high security facilities.

A lot of my most interesting memories are from this time in my life. Probably the best is when the wonderful folks at Icelandair decided to send a few of us (myself, Lisa Merkey and Debbie Hutton) to Iceland for the weekend, all expenses paid. We were informed late that summer, and since none of us had passports, we had to hustle down to an office in Washington to get them. If I remember correctly, it didn’t seem like much of a hassle at the time (except for going into Washington). We were scheduled to leave on Friday, October 14, providing our flight had open seats (being freebies, they wouldn’t let us be the reason seats weren’t sold, but this is standard airline procedure, and we understood).

As the date of departure approached, the Orioles advanced through the playoffs. My future wife and I saw games 1 & 2 of the American League Championship Series at Memorial Stadium. The Birds lost Game 1, but came back to take Game 2. It suddenly occurred to me that I might be in Iceland as the Orioles played for a championship; I was uneasy at this, but never once considered passing up the chance of a lifetime to watch baseball. What if I turned this opportunity down and they lost?

When the appointed day arrived, we arrived at the airport, luggage in tow, to work the flight that would eventually take us across the ocean. We knew from the passenger list that we would probably make the flight, unless people showed up at the last minute wanting a ticket (you could do that back then). Iceland in the fall is not a popular tourist attraction, so we felt pretty confident. (Why did people go to Iceland at all? Icelandair offered inexpensive continuing service to Luxembourg, in the middle of Europe, as long as you didn’t mind a stop in “Ísland.” At the time there was little service to Europe from the area, so this was a popular option.)

That night was also the third game of the World Series, which the Orioles won 3-2,  putting them up in the series 2-1 over the Phillies. I was a huge O’s fan, and now it seemed entirely possible that they could win it all before I got back home to see it. It was dangerous to think this way, but I was pulling for one Philadelphia win, so that the series would return to Baltimore.

The flight left late at night, and when we got on, because we were left to open seating, the three of us were scattered throughout the 707. On the bright side, however, we were given a stack of free alcohol coupons! (See the bottom right corner of the photo above.) I was feeling very grownup and worldly, so I used mine on Grand Marnier, which helped me doze off.

I woke up in the wee small hours of the morning, and looked out of the window at a vast unbroken whiteness. This was Greenland. I was too excited to return to sleep. Just before the sun rose, I snapped this photo:

A few hours later, it was Saturday morning. The plane touched down at Keflavik Airport, and the pilot announced that the temperature outside was 43°. I was shocked; I was in Iceland and that was no different than Baltimore in December. What he didn’t tell us was that the winds were blowing at about 20 miles per hour, and they cut right through you. There was no jetway, just roll up stairs on the tarmac, so the frigid air punched me in the face as soon as I stepped out of the plane.

After getting our bags, we took a van to the Hotel Loftleiðir, which wasn’t plush, but that didn’t matter, because we were in Iceland.

The view from the hotel was amazing. The countryside appeared nearly flat, except for the beautiful ice-covered mountains visible from my window. Here’s a picture I took:

We didn’t have much time, so that afternoon we went out to see the town of Reykjavik. Reykjavik is Iceland’s capital and its largest city, but of course, this is relative. To us it seemed like a quaint, small town. It also seemed as if every business was closed. (We later found out that closing for the weekend was the norm.) We walked around the small streets and took in the chilly, windy atmosphere. Soon we found ourselves at the water’s edge, where I snapped this photo:

We were hungry, and finally found what appeared to us to be a small delicatessen that was open; the shop specialized in salads and fish. I ordered a fish sandwich, and tried to tell the young lady who took my order that I didn’t want lettuce. Having left my Ensk-islensk Vasaordabok (English-Icelandic Dictionary) in my hotel room, I couldn’t come up with the word. (Icelandic is the language of the original Viking explorers, almost perfectly preserved today.The only Icelandic word I remember today is þakka þér fyrir, which sounds like “thakka thair feerer” and means “thank you very much.”) As it turned out the word was salat. Salat/salad. I felt stupid.

Continuing our walk around town, we were struck by the lack of trees, shrubs and animals, which no doubt are made rare by the biting cold. Here are some pictures I snapped as we walked:

After a time, we saw this large tower on the top of a slight rise that looked like a promising tourist attraction, so we made our way to it:

As it turns out, this is a church with a statue of Leif Erikson in front of it. The statue was a gift from the United States in 1930:

The church was unlocked, and we climbed to the open windows at the top (stronger, even colder winds up there), from where I took this photo:

At this point we were frozen solid, and since nighttime, with its promise of even more frigid weather, was closing in quickly, we decided to head back. With some difficulty we hailed one of the few taxis, which returned us to the hotel. This was another strange experience. As the cab idled in front of the hotel, and we tried to figure out how much kronur we owed, the meter kept running, changing the total. Kronur is worth a lot less than dollars, so every time we looked up, the number seemed outrageously higher. Eventually we threw a bunch of Icelandic money at him and dashed out of the cab. We knew we had probably overpaid, and that we had probably been taken advantage of, but we were foreigners, and teenagers at that. What could we do?

When I got back to my small, sparse hotel room, I discovered a radio built into the wall above my bed; soon I was on Armed Forces Radio, listening to the Orioles game. I only heard a couple of innings, however, before the ladies arrived to pick me up for another cab ride, this time to the Club Broadway in Reykjavik.

The Broadway was smoky, loud and crowded, a place where people had no problem invading your personal space and putting their hands on you, which, as an American, I found very awkward. A live band was playing American music badly, and we soon found a few open seats at one of the long tables. I went to the bar and ordered a vodka and orange juice, which was made as an Old Grand Dad and orange juice. After much struggle to explain what I wanted, I settled for a gin and tonic.

When I got back to our table, I found myself seated next to a chatty Icelandic guy in his early twenty’s who considered himself a bit of an expert in things American.  He spent the next hour explaining to me that America had been infiltrated by a vast Ku Klux Klan conspiracy; he even showed me, by tearing apart his pack of Marlboro cigarettes, how they sent secret messages to each other using the colored circles on the inside flaps of the box. I listened politely before excusing myself to get another gin and tonic. After a few more hours of smoke, loud music and screaming at the person sitting right next to you, we headed back to the hotel, exhausted from our long day.

The next day we stayed close to the hotel, because we had a flight to catch. I did a little shopping at the hotel store, where I discovered, after finally figuring out how to convert kronur to dollars, that my cokes were costing me six dollars each. On the other hand, a nice wool scarf (which I still have) and a jar of caviar were dirt cheap. (I didn’t get the caviar because I was down to my last ten kronur, which didn’t buy anything. I still have it:

Finally, it was time to check out and head to the airport. Here’s my hotel tab and receipts from what little shopping I did:

And here are my souvenirs:

On the flight home, the ladies took the last two open seats and I got the “jump seat.” This is a fold-down seat located directly behind the cockpit. It wasn’t very comfortable, but I was happy to be on the plane at all. Another perk to being up front with the crew is that when we descending into O’Hare in Chicago, I was called into the cockpit. The pilot pointed out the window excitedly and said, “Loook. See-Ka-Go, See-Ka-Go!” As I peered curiously through the clouds, I began to see the entire city of Chicago, sitting on Lake Michigan and laid out before us. I thanked the captain for his thoughtfulness; it was a nice touch.

In Customs at O’Hare, I found the first American man and asked, “I’m from Baltimore. Have you heard about the World Series? What’s going on?” Gruffly, he said, “Yeah, I dink you guys won it.” And that was how I learned that the Orioles were World Champions. We got into Baltimore in time to see the buses from Philadelphia arrive at Memorial Stadium, where they were attacked by the throngs of fans who had been waiting all night. I was later told by coworkers that BWI had broadcast the end of the game on monitors around the terminal, and that when the last out was made, the concourses shook.

No matter. I had my memories of a very cool weekend in Ísland (take that however you want to), and I wouldn’t have traded it for the world, not even for the World Series.

10 Worst Days in United States History

In honor of Black Friday, this week’s History List ranks the ten darkest days in U.S. history. In drawing up this list, I take into account not just fatalities, but also the impact that the event had upon the nation’s psyche. For this reason, only one battle makes the list.

Ready for a depressing trip down America’s Memory Lane? Here we go:

10. 01/28/1986 (Space Shuttle Challenger) – Before this tragedy, the U.S. space program had experienced nothing but success since the fatal January 27, 1967 Apollo I launchpad fire. I suspect that we had begun to take this success for granted, going so far as to include a civilian on this mission, Christa McAuliffe, a high school social studies teacher. America watched the shuttle explode live on television, instantly killing all on board, and then got to see the confused and horrified reaction from the crowd at the launch site, including McAuliffe’s parents. It was a stunning and sobering reminder that the United States was not infallible, and that space exploration was still very dangerous business.

Christa McAuliffe, in the back row, second from left.

9. 04/18/1906  (San Francisco earthquake, 3,000-6,000 dead) As devastating as this 8.0 magnitude event was, the subsequent fires that tore through the largely wooden buildings caused 90% of the damage in the city. In addition to the dead, 300,000 survivors lost their homes, with losses estimated at $6.5 billion (in 2009 dollars).

8. 04/04/1968 (Martin Luther King, Jr. Assassinated) The murder of Dr. King, followed by days of bloody race riots, heralded the end of the spirit of non-violence the slain civil rights leader had championed, and initiated a period of extreme anger and confrontation. 1968 would soon see the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the chaotic Democratic National Convention and a call for a return to “law and order.”

7. 09/08/1900 (Galveston hurricane, 6,000- 12,000 dead) At the time of the hurricane, Galveston, on the Gulf coast, sat just 8 feet above sea level. The storm surge alone was 15 feet high. You do the math. After the town had been obliterated, the stench of corpses could be smelled for miles; they were collected on carts and hauled outside of town for mass burial.

6. 11/22/1963 (Kennedy Assassination) For all of his moral flaws and practical inability to get much done, John Kennedy was perhaps the most inspiring leader of his time. While his popularity represents the triumph of style and ideals over substance and achievements, millions of young Americans saw him as representative of their (and America’s) future. His brutal killing in Dallas, followed by a very public period of mourning, will forever mark the end of an American period of innocence, and it set the stage for a darker, more conflicted time in America’s history.

5. 12/07/1941 (Pearl Harbor) As Christmas 1941 approached, most Americans were thankful to have thus far avoided the scourge of war, and assumed that the nation would continue to do so. The Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet’s base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, ended this illusion. The tally: 4 battleships sunk; 4 battleships damaged including 1 run aground; 2 destroyers sunk, 1 damaged; 1 other ship sunk, 3 damaged; 3 cruisers damaged; 188 aircraft destroyed, 155 aircraft damaged; 2,345 military and 57 civilians killed, 1,247 military and 35 civilians wounded. Images of the Pearl Harbor disaster covered newspapers the next morning, and a Japanese invasion of the American Pacific coast was considered entirely possible. The internment order for Japanese-Americans would soon follow.

4. 09/11/2001 – Before this day, Americans assumed that terrorism was something that other countries had to worry about, as if our geographic separation from the Middle East would save us. The sheer magnitude of the 9/11 attacks stunned the people of the United States and reminded them of their vulnerability in what could be a very frightening world. It also brought to the surface the depths of the hatred with which some Muslims viewed Americans, and the lengths to which they would go to kill Americans (2,976 on this day alone). Feeling insecure in the aftermath of these attacks, Americans willingly accepted intrusive laws, a government with unheard of investigative powers, and military intervention in the Middle East.

3. 4/15/1865 (Lincoln dies) Abraham Lincoln was the nation’s one constant during the trial of civil war. Generals came and went, territory changed hands and the fortunes of war rose and ebbed, but Lincoln never wavered. Only weeks after having been inaugurated for a second term as president, Abraham Lincoln was dead at the hands of an assassin with Southern sympathies. Just when it had seemed as if the nation would be restored without further antagonism, the main proponent of “letting the Rebels up easy”  had been murdered, and the victors held the vanquished fully responsible. What came next was Radical Reconstruction, as many in the North sought not so much reconciliation as retribution. The Old South would be militarily occupied for another dozen years, and forever relegated to the status of economic backwater.

2. 10/29/1929 (stock market) The largely unregulated stock market, full of excesses that had fueled the Roaring 20′s, met with disaster on this day. Banks that had invested poorly folded, taking businesses and family savings with them. The ripple effect brought on the Great Depression, sending millions to the unemployment rolls and devastating the nation’s economy for 12 years, where it could only be ended by the ramp up to World War II. The financial turmoil of this event helped dictators rise to power in Europe and left scars upon a generation that never fully healed. (Just ask anyone over 75.)

1. 08/24/1814 (Washington, D.C. burned) In an event that is today little talked about and even less understood, the capital of the United States was occupied by a foreign power and laid waste. And Americans were helpless to stop it. In 1814, the third year of the War of 1812, England, having finally dispatched Bonaparte, focused its full attention on the wide expanse and paltry military of the United States. While its army and navy occupied eastern New England and planned multiple invasions, British negotiators demanded large land cessions as the price of peace (seeking not only to establish a neutral Indian buffer state in what is now the states bordering the Great Lakes, but also revising both the Canadian‐American boundary and the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris that had established the United States as an independent nation). When Washington, D.C fell, almost effortlessly, to the British invasion forces, many thought that the United States was finished as an independent nation. New England actually considered seceding from the United States, and made plans to hold a convention with that object in mind. At the end of August 1814, America teetered at death’s door as a political entity. Fortunately, there would be miracles soon forthcoming at Baltimore and Lake Champlain.

(Dis)Honorable Mentions, in no particular order:

04/12/1861 (Ft. Sumter)

11/16/1776 (Ft. Washington abandoned)

3/06/1857 (Dred Scott)

04/12/1945 (FDR’s death)

04/09/1942 (Bataan)

09/17/1862 (Antietam)

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