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.”

The Vote Heard ‘Round The Beltway

Last night, in what was paradoxically an upset that felt increasingly inevitable, Republican state senator Scott Brown defeated Democratic Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in the special election to fill the seat vacated by the late Edward Kennedy. This vote is being described as a “game-changer” because it deprives the Democrats of their filibuster-proof 60 seat majority in the Senate, which leaves the future of much of President Obama’s legislative agenda, including healthcare, in doubt.

In the wake of this stunning turn of events, I have granted myself the following exclusive interview, which represents nothing more than an interested outsider’s point of view:

Q: Wow! How did the Democrats manage to lose Ted Kennedy’s seat?

A: Well, it wasn’t easy. Martha Coakley, as it turned out, was a rather poor candidate, and thoroughly unprepared for a fight. As the only woman in the Democratic primary, she was treated with kid gloves by her male opponents. According to the Boston Globe, “Throughout the primary, Coakley’s three male opponents were wary of appearing too aggressive. Early in the campaign, when US Representative Michael E. Capuano called her “cautious,’’ his remarks were called sexist by (state Senate President Therese) Murray…From that point on, none of Coakley’s challengers attacked her with any vigor.” Democrats just assumed (not without reason) that whoever won the primary would win the seat in a cakewalk, and so Coakley was anointed. Scott Brown didn’t hesitate to attack her, and her response was to go on vacation. Soon, Brown had cast himself as the everyman candidate, and Coakley as the tool of the system. Before the Democrats recognized what was happening, the race had gotten away from them.

Q: OK, but the Democrats still have 59 out of 100 U.S. Senators, why is this a big deal?

A: The Senate has a wonderful, time-worn tradition called the filibuster. A filibuster is basically just a rule that says the Senate needs 60 votes to forcibly stop debate and move on to a vote. If a bill is coming up for a vote, and the losing side has at least 40 votes, they can essentially hold Senate business hostage by refusing to end the debate. At that point, the bill must be either put aside or tabled (killed). It’s a great procedural maneuver that gives the minority some leverage, and it’s been used effectively by both sides over the years. James Stewart’s classic 1939 movie, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, is most vividly remembered for its filibuster scene. The Republicans now have enough votes to filibuster again, jeopardizing the Obama agenda.

Q: So what happens to the healthcare bill?

A: That’s anybody’s guess right now. The Senate passed a version that is very different from the version passed by the House. The only way that the Democrats can avoid having to deal with a potential filibuster in the Senate is to get the House to accept the Senate version without changes, and that seems very unlikely. There’s been talk of trying to rush something through before Scott Brown is sworn in, but I doubt that any Democrat up for reelection this year would have the stomach for that. What may end up happening is that the bill gets separated into small, bite-sized chunks, and the pieces that can be agreed upon would then survive. This would allow the President and the Democrats to claim that they kept their promise of healthcare reform, even if it is only limited reform.

Q: So, is this the beginning of a Republican comeback?

A: Not necessarily. There were a lot of factors in play in Massachusetts, not the least of which was the electorate’s desire to “send Washington a message.” If the Democrats are smart, and return to a populist, centrist position on national issues, and if they can change their focus from healthcare to job creation, there’s still time to recapture the agenda. What they can’t afford to do anymore is to appear arrogant, like they did in Massachusetts. One thing that Americans hate is when one party lords over them.

Q: What does this mean for President Obama?

A: It means he must proceed with extreme caution. If he overreacts and begins to cave in on every issue, he’ll be seen as a lame duck by his own party, and he’ll alienate his base. If he goes the other way and becomes more aggressive in pushing his agenda, he risks appearing arrogant in the face of voter anger. In both cases, the Democrats would pay heavily in the Congressional midterms this November. In 1994, Bill Clinton faced a similar crisis and successfully reinvented himself as a centrist; Obama doesn’t have to reinvent himself just yet, but he must heed the danger signs ahead.

Whatever happens, those of us who follow politics as sport are in for a fun ride.

10 Best State Flags

For today’s Friday History List, I look at what I consider to be the best-looking state flags. While this list is not altogether historic, but there are historic elements here.

10. Oregon – This flag makes the list for two reasons: It is the only state flag with different images on each side, and one of those images is a beaver.

Oregon (front)

Oregon (reverse)

9. California – This flag has a bear on it, commemorating the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846, which “liberated” California from the oppressive, distant, remote hand of Mexico.

California

8. New Mexico – There are two states with cool Indian designs. I prefer New Mexico because it just looks cleaner and classier than Oklahoma. Also, the state’s name isn’t on the flag, which is always a plus.

New Mexico

7. South Carolina – South Carolina has always had the palmetto tree association, so I appreciate the history. For some reason also, the palmetto tree is now very popular as a window sticker (are that many Marylanders originally from South Carolina?). Finally, blue and white are classy colors.

South Carolina

6. Alaska – What’s better than blue and white? Blue and gold! (Think Buffalo Sabres.) Add to that the very cool element of the Big Dipper, and I’m on board. (“Hey, Sarah! I can see your flag from my Mac!”)

Alaska

5. Hawaii – This flag reminds me of the Grand Union flag from the American Revolution, which makes me biased, but it’s my list, so who cares? There are two American state flags that include the flag of an enemy nation. This is one; Mississippi is the other.

Hawaii

4. Arizona – Arizona’s flag reminds me of a psychedelic painting that might have hung in a college dorm room in 1967, or perhaps a scene from the director’s cut of Yellow Submarine. For such a conservative state, this flag is pretty far-out.

Arizona

3. Wyoming – A classic color scheme (red, white and blue), the state seal, and yes, a massive bison. What more need I say?

Wyoming

2. Ohio – Ohio has the only state flag with an irregular shape. In fact, it’s shaped like a cavalry guidon from the 19th century, which is probably why I like it so much. There’s a big “O” in the center, the colors are good and the stars reflect the number of states in the Union when Ohio was admitted in 1803. Lots going on here.

1. Maryland – The only state flag with English heraldry, the Maryland flag is comprised of the heralds of the families of the founder of Maryland, George Calvert, and thus this flag’s design can be traced back to the 16th century. The black and gold coat of arms is from the Calvert family, and the red and white is from the Crossland family (Calvert’s mother’s family). Interesting, the red and white of the Crossland herald became associated with Maryland secessionists during the Civil War and was banned for the duration. Put it all together and you have what is clearly the coolest flag of all the state flags.

Maryland

One final note: It is very disappointing to note the number of states who apparently all said the same thing: “Design? Just throw the state seal on a blue field and maybe put the name on the bottom. Who cares what the state flag looks like anyway?”

5 Best Ex-Presidents

Some Presidents enjoy history-changing terms of office and find themselves elevated to the Pantheon of greatness. Other Chief Executives, however, do as much (and sometimes more) once they leave office as they ever did in power. Here, then, for your Friday History List enjoyment, are the top five ex-presidents:

5. Herbert Hoover – With his presidency devastated (along with the nation) by the Great Depression, a personally repudiated Herbert Hoover was trounced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1932 election. Because his image was so tarnished, Hoover largely stayed out of the public eye in the 1930s, resurfacing in 1941 to speak out against American entry into the Second World War, and a possible alliance with the Soviet Union against Germany (he correctly foresaw that helping the Russians defeat Hitler would give them control of much of Europe). After the war, President Truman sent Hoover to Germany to assess its need for economic relief and the state of U.S. occupation; one of Hoover’s innovations was a school meals program for German children Hooverspeisung (Hoover meals). His Hoover Commissions in the years 1947-1949 and 1953-1955, promoted efficiency in the United States Government. The author of over a dozen books, he oversaw the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a public policy think-tank that had been created in 1919, and did much fund-raising for the Boys Clubs (now the Boys & Girls Clubs of America).

Herbert Hoover

4. Thomas Jefferson – After having served two terms as president, in 1809 Thomas Jefferson retired to Monticello, his plantation in Virginia. Continuing in the spirit of his “Renaissance man” personality, Jefferson studied the classics, worked as an architect, and was a prolific writer of letters, most notably to his former rival John Adams. For many of these years he was occupied with the creation of the University of Virginia, doing most of the architectural design himself. He served as president of the American Philosophical Society from 1797 to 1815.

Thomas Jefferson

3. John Quincy Adams – Defeated overwhelmingly by Andrew Jackson in 1828, career public servant John Quincy Adams reentered the arena almost immediately, becoming in 1830 the only U.S. president to be elected to the House of Representatives after leaving office. He would faithfully serve in Congress, first as a National Republican and later as a Whig, until his death 17 years later. In the House, he was often the lonely antislavery voice, using parliamentary devices to bring up the subject in spite of the Gag Rule. In 1841, he successfully defended the rebellious slaves of the Spanish slave ship Amistad before the Supreme Court of the United States (Amistad is a great movie, by the way, you should see it). Adams did the work pro bono.

John Quincy Adams

2. Bill Clinton – President Clinton has remained active in both party politics and world affairs since leaving office in 2001. A popular public speaker in Democratic circles, Clinton has also published two books, My Life (autobiography) and Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World. His William J. Clinton Foundation promotes and provides for a number of humanitarian causes, such as HIV/AIDS programs and the Clinton Foundation Climate Change Initiative; it also funds the Clinton Global Initiative (global public health, poverty alleviation and religious and ethnic conflict). Clinton has traveled to Kazakhstan to help securing mining contracts and to North Korea to negotiate the release of American journalists.

Bill Clinton

1. Jimmy Carter – Defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980 after what many have considered to be one of the worst presidencies of the 20th century, Carter immediately got to work. In 1982, he established the Carter Center in Atlanta, to advance human rights and promote democracy by mediating conflicts, and monitoring the electoral process in support of free and fair elections. It also works to improve global health through the control and eradication of diseases, to diminish the stigma against mental illnesses and to improve nutrition through increased crop production in Africa. Carter has traveled the world since his electoral defeat, meeting with world leaders and sometimes negotiating agreements in support of world peace. In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. The author of over two dozen books, he is also well-known for his work with Habitat for Humanity.

Jimmy Carter

5 Worst Christmases in U.S. History

Not every Christmas season is uplifting, in fact, some American Christmases have been downright depressing. In today’s Friday History List, I look at the five worst Christmas seasons in United States history. If you ever get tempted to think that this holiday season is tough, just remember these, and be thankful for what we have.

5. Christmas 1963 – Barely one month before, the young and popular President John Kennedy had been killed in Dallas. At Christmastime, much of the nation was still in shock and mourning.

4. Christmas 1941 – In the days following Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invaded the Philippines, Burma, Borneo, Hong Kong and Guam..On Christmas Day 1941, Americans worried about Japanese midget subs in San Francisco Bay and German U-boats off the coast of New Jersey.

3. Christmas 1929 – This was the first Christmas after the Stock Market crash of October. With banks failing, companies shutting down and the life savings of many Americans having evaporated, there was plenty of coal in the nation’s stocking this year.

2.  Christmas 1862 – When 1862 began, both North and South were hopeful that “the late unpleasantness” might soon be over. The North trusted in their new commander, George McClellan, and the South was buoyant after the successes of 1861. By Christmastime, inconceivable slaughter at Shiloh and Antietam had ended all illusions. In the North, the families of Union soldiers mowed down at Fredericksburg only days before had even less to celebrate.

1. Christmas 1776 – The United States, barely five months old, seemed on the verge of extinction this Christmas. George Washington’s continental army had been driven from New York, chased through New Jersey and now sat, malnourished, sickly and demoralized, on the Pennsylvania shore of the Delaware River. Many of Washington’s troops planned on going home in a week, since their enlistment papers expired with the new year. The British busied themselves making preparations for their winter quarters, in full expectation of accepting the surrender of whatever remained of the American rebellion in the spring. A list had already been prepared, detailing which American leaders would be granted amnesty, which would be imprisoned, and which would be hung for high treason. What no one knew that Christmas morning was that Washington was about to save the American Revolution and in doing so, change the course of history.

Top Ten Decisive Battles in Western Civilization

Today’s Friday History List examines the ten most decisive battles in the history of Western Civilization. These are battles that, by their outcomes, changed the course of events in a very dramatic way. They are listed chronologically:

202 B.C. – Zama. The Romans, commanded by Scipio, routed Hannibal and drove him from the field. Carthage was removed as a rival to Rome in the Western Mediterranean, and Rome became the dominate power in Europe. This in turn ensured that western Europe would become subject to heavy Latin and Greek influences.

312 A.D. – Milvian Bridge. Constantine, having seen a vision of victory (“in hoc signo vinces“), defeats Maxentius‘ armies to become the master of first the Western Roman Empire, and eventually all of it. Fulfilling a pre-battle vow, he converts to Christianity, taking all of the Empire with him.  At the Council of Nicea, Constantine assigns blame for Christ’s death to the Jews, and he makes Christianity the predominate religion of his empire. Much of Europe’s future has just been written.

451 – Châlons. Attila the Hun is defeated by a combined Roman/Visigoth force, preventing him from dominating Western Europe. Into the vacuum steps Germanic culture and the Catholic Church, expressed by papal power in Rome.

732 – Tours. Muslim invaders, intent on spreading the religion of Mohammed, enjoyed unchecked success as they expanded their influence from India to Spain. At Tours, Frankish leader Charles Martel defeated a Muslim force commanded by Abd er-Rahman, ending the Muslim threat to Western Europe, establishing the Franks as dominate in Gaul and preparing the scene for Charlemagne.

1588 – Spanish Armada. The Spanish, fueled by precious metals stripped from the Americas, achieved military and political hegemony in the 16th century. When England left the Catholic Church under Henry VIII, the Spanish became their sworn enemies; when English pirates began raiding Spanish galleons, threatening Spain’s financial windfall, the situation took on a new sense of urgency. In 1588, the Spanish, aided by the French, intended to invade England and forcibly reconvert the population. Stormy seas and a plucky English navy caused the destruction of almost half of the Spanish vessels and England not only survived, but rose to become the preeminent naval power in the world. With the Spanish badly weakened, the English decided to move rapidly into the colony business. England’s time had arrived.

1776 – Trenton. In the fall of 1776, it looked like the American Revolution had failed. George Washington’s dwindling army seemed on the verge of disintegration, and the British relaxed for the winter, intending on finishing off whatever remained of the rebellion in the spring. Rather than watch his army die, Washington led a surprise attack on his enemy’s forward position in Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas night, 1776. What resulted was a stunning victory over Hessian mercenaries that changed the direction of the war and set the stage for the eventual ejection of the English from their American colonies.

1813 – Leipzig. Napoleon, his army greatly weakened by losses the previous year during the Russian campaign, faced for the first time a combined allied army. At Leipzig Napoleon is defeated and forced to retreat to France; he will abdicate the next year, effectively ending his influence and dramatically shifting the balance of power in Europe.

1864 – Atlanta. The summer of 1864 was the North’s darkest hour, as the bright hopes of springtime campaigns had been ground away to dark disappointment. U.S. Grant’s battles against Robert E. Lee in Virginia had been enormously bloody (over 50,000 new Union casualties) with no end yet in sight. In the South, William Tecumseh Sherman’s army sat outside of Atlanta with little hope of breaking its own deadlock. To the public, and more particularly to prospective voters that year, it looked as if Mr. Lincoln’s war might never end. Confederate President Jefferson Davis did the Union a favor that summer as he replaced the defensive-minded Joseph Johnston with the reckless John Bell Hood. Within weeks Hood had taken massive casualties and was eventually compelled to give up Atlanta. The Union victory there gave the electorate in the North the optimism they needed to reelect Abraham Lincoln, which doomed any Southern hopes for victory. At Atlanta, both the Confederacy and American slavery died forever.

1914 – 1st Marne. One of the reasons Germany welcomed the start of the First World War was their absolute faith in the Von Schlieffen Plan, which they expected to result in the fall of France in no more than six weeks. (Don’t forget that the last time Germany and France fought, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the Germans had won a resounding victory.) In August of 1914, in spite of tough resistance from the Belgians and a combined British-French defense, all was on schedule. What the Von Schlieffen Plan didn’t take into account though, was the logistical nightmare of trying to keep rapidly moving troops adequately supplied in a day when most ammunition and provisions were still carried in horse-pulled wagons. Losing confidence, German Chief of Staff Moltke changed the plan in mid-stream and exposed his army to attack. This the French did at the 1st Battle of the Marne. By the first week of September, the German Army had been halted, and both armies began to dig trenches in a line that would eventually extend to the North Sea. A war of rapid movement had suddenly become a nightmare in the trenches.

1940 – Dunkirk. At the end of May 1940, it was clear that the Nazis would conquer France; all that was left to be decided was whether the 400,000 British and French survivors could be evacuated to England, where the fight might go on. If the Germans could have entrapped and destroyed those troops, the Second World War might have ended that spring, as Britain would have had little but the Home Guard with which to defend their island. The evacuation, called Operation Dynamo, was aided by German hesitation and the heroic efforts of those on the thousands of boats that helped in the rescue. In addition, the RAF inflicted serious losses on the Luftwaffe as it harassed the troops on the beach. By the time the effort was called off on June 4, 338,000 men had been taken out of France and the Germans had lost 240 aircraft. Hitler would eventually realize that he could never have England, instead, he turned his attention to the Soviet Union – with disastrous consequences.

Pearl Harbor: A Date That Is Being Rapidly Forgotten

Sixty-eight years ago today, your grandparents’ generation had their 9-11 moment. On that day, the Empire of Japan decided to sucker-punch the United States Pacific Fleet, stationed at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, Hawaii. The Japanese military leadership hoped that by destroying America’s naval presence in the Pacific, they could bully the United States into accepting Japanese hegemony in the Far East. This would allow their aggressive expansionism to continue unchecked.

The attack began at 11:55AM Eastern time (6:55AM local time), with the aerial bombing beginning almost an hour later. The Americans at Pearl Harbor were taken by surprise, and nearly 3,000 were killed. The destruction was nearly complete: 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.

The United States, however, was fortunate on this day. The decisive weapon of the war in the Pacific would not be battleships, but aircraft carriers, and the American carriers were out to sea when the Japanese struck, and thus they survived. What the attack had accomplished more immediately, however, was to thrust the United States into the Second World War.

For the next six months, the Japanese Empire ran amok in the Far East, capturing nations at will as the United States at first reeled, and then began to build the most formidable war machine in human history to that point. By the summer of 1942, the United States had begun the process of taking the fight to the Japanese, winning two stunning victories at Coral Sea and Midway. From then on, the Japanese were on the defensive. But on December 7, 1941, Americans didn’t know how things would turn out.

Many expected a Japanese invasion of the West Coast; any American with an Oriental look about them was soon considered suspect. Many whites had no time for subtleties  -to them, they all looked like the guys flying Zeros at Pearl Harbor and Midway. Not long after this, the internment order for Japanese-Americans would be issued.

For my father, then a seventeen-year-old living at St. Mary’s Industrial School on the present site of Cardinal Gibbons School, the entry of the United States into the war brought him to enlist in the Marines. He would eventually be wounded on the Japanese island of Okinawa in 1945, but lived to tell the tale. He quickly recovered and would have been part of the invasion of the Japanese mainland had not the atomic bomb ended the war. For this, I probably owe my existence, because conservative estimates put American casualties in Japan at around one million.

Marines on Okinawa

The day after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt said that the date would “live in infamy.” For many younger Americans, the date has already lost its meaning, and the future looks bleak as less than 50 survivors of the attack remain. Soon, there will be no one to recall the events of that day, and we will become dependent on books, photographs and films.

But today, while we still have them here, let’s not pass up a chance to pause for a moment or two and recall their 9-11 moment, just as we hope that sixty years from now, our grandchildren will be able to recall ours.