Freedom from 'Live Free or Die' motto Some in N.H. seeking a change

October 25, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

HENNIKER, N.H. -- Seated behind her desk at the public library in this riverside village, librarian Betty Rood traces her bloodline to the 18th century, to the rock-solid American patriots who helped settle the Granite State.

"Live Free or Die" was their rallying cry. Today it's New Hampshire's well-known motto.

Would Ms. Rood favor changing that seminal slogan to portray a happier, friendlier image?

Heresy, she says, echoing popular sentiment.

So what are State Reps. Thea Braiterman and Barbara French up to? Are they serious about legislation that would allow New Hampshire motorists to choose between license plates stamped with the message of fierce independence, as they have been since 1969, and plates inscribed simply "Scenic," as they once were, rather unmemorably?

Do these women from Henniker, both Democrats in a state with a Republican majority and a GOP governor, think the bill they filed last month has a prayer?

"'Live Free or Die' is a proper slogan for war time. . . . But we're not in a war," said Ms. Braiterman, a retired professor of economics at New England College, whose hilly campus straddles the gently rolling Contoocook River here.

"We see New Hampshire as a beautiful, peaceful, scenic place. If you really believe in people living free, those who want to say 'Scenic' should be able to. Choice is the ultimate freedom."

As a tourist state, "we need a more welcoming, caring slogan," adds Ms. French, a former public school nurse and longtime member of the Henniker Peace Community, an anti-war group.

"Live free or die. Death is not the worst of evils," is how Revolutionary War Gen. John Stark toasted his troops. General Stark, a cantankerous New Hampshire-born hero with a gift for picturesque expression, led battalions of volunteers at the battles of Bennington and Bunker Hill. The New Hampshire legislature chose his stirring exhortation for the state's official motto in 1945.

Controversy engulfed the famous four words 24 years later, after the legislature voted to add them to New Hampshire license plates even as the United States was knee deep and heading deeper into the divisive Vietnam War.

Defenders of the staunch sentiment called it a statement of principle, a link to a tradition that set New Hampshire apart.

Detractors said it broadcast an air of militancy. Some saw irony in the fact that state prison inmates -- the least free of New Hampshire's citizens -- produced the plates.

In 1972, two Dartmouth students were prosecuted and fined $50 for painting over the slogan.

Four years later, another case challenging the requirement that vehicles display it was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case involved George Maynard, a printer living in Newport who didn't share the motto's sentiment and wanted the world to know it. So he took tin snips to his license plate and clipped the motto off.

Eventually, the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

By 6-3, the high court ruled that New Hampshire's 1 million registered vehicles were not obliged to display the motto. Because he didn't damage the registration numbers, the court held that Mr. Maynard's snips were an act of symbolic free speech.

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