"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:
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."
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!"
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.
Many mottos and slogans around the world and throughout history have contrasted freedom and death. Some examples:
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.
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).
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 governor of the Azores, Ciprião de Figueiredo. 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."
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 "Свобода или смърт" - "Svoboda ili smart" - "Freedom or Death" was a revolutionary slogan used during the national liberation struggles by the Bulgarian revolutionaries. The slogan was used during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
"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.