"Live Free or Die" (the true origin given today, on John Stark Day in New Hampshire)

Today is John Stark Day in New Hampshire, honoring the Revolutionary soldier who wrote in 1809, “Live Free or Die!” Stark didn’t originate the saying, and let us be the first to explain it. I hope the New Hampshire newspapers pick up the story.

 My interest began on last Saturday, when I was listening to the libertarian radio show Live Free Austin. The guest was someone from the Free State Project, dedicated to making New Hampshire a land where personal liberty still exists and it’s still legal to provide your kid with a school lunch and stuff.

The show began ominously. One of the hosts gave a quote that he said was from Samuel Adams: “It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds.

Yes, the word “irate” wasn’t even used until the 1830s. Yes, the term “brush fires in the mind” wouldn’t be used until the 20th century. Yes, it’s not from Samuel Adams.

I debunked this on my website in 2009. Again, the Google algorithm puts absolute crap ahead of my website, so if you’re researching this quote, you’ll never find the truth,

The bogus Samuel Adams quote also appears on Page 181 of the book Red State Rising (2010) by Erick Erickson.

What do I have to do? Grab everyone by the lapel and say, “I’m Barry Popik! I research words and phrases and the history and meaning of our country! I work for free! Call me and don’t get this stuff wrong!”

I then realized that I hadn’t looked at “Live Free or Die.” Here it is below, with new historical information.

From a recent John Stossel’s Take:

March 28, 2011 03:52 PM UTC by John Stossel

“Live Free or Die.”
Last Thursday on my FBN show, I reported on the Free State Project. That’s the group of libertarians who commit to move to New Hampshire in an effort to create a real libertarian state. I used New Hampshire’s state motto, “Live Free or Die,” for my show title. I said it came from Patrick Henry’s, “Give me Liberty or Give me Death.” I was wrong.

Sandra Lawton writes:
Live Free or Die, our state motto was a quote from General John Stark! Not Patrick Henry! He said, “Live Free or Die. Death is not the worst of evils.” I know.

My dad, Bob Lawton, was the legislator in the ‘60’s that introduced the bill to put the state motto, “Live Free or Die,” on our license plates.

From New Hampshire’s Union-Leader:

Gen. Stark: More than a man with a motto
New Hampshire Union Leader
Saturday, Apr. 23, 2011
MANCHESTER – Who is buried in Stark Park?

It’s not a trick question, the Friends of Stark Park write in their recent newsletter, noting so few people seem to know that legendary Gen. John Stark is buried in the park on River Road in Manchester.

The Friends of Stark Park, joining forces again this Monday with the Sons of the American Revolution, are looking to raise public awareness of the Revolutionary War hero beyond his famous words: “Live Free or Die; Death is not the worst of evils.”

I’ve now found “live free or die” from a very popular French utopian novel of 1772. “Unite — live free — or die” was the chorus lyric of 1798 song by “Mr. Dunham” of Hanover, New Hampshire. It was probably Josiah Dunham, and New Hampshire would do well to honor him, also.

Here’s the whole thing, from my website:

Entry from April 23, 2011
“Live free or die”
“Live Free or Die” is the New Hampshire motto, approved in 1945 by its legislature after a suggestion by the Daughters of the American Revolution. New Hampshire’s John Stark (1728-1822) was known as the “Hero of Bennington” for his service at the Battle of Bennington, Vermont, in 1777. He wrote on July 31, 1809, that he couldn’t attend the anniversary reunion of the Battle of Bennington because of ill health, but he ended the letter with:

“P.S. I will give you my volunteer toast. LIVE FREE OR DIE.—DEATH IS NOT THE GREATEST OF EVILS.”

The saying “Live free or die” had been well-established long before 1809. In 1772, a French novel by Louis-Sébastien Mercier contained, “Choose then, man! be happy or miserable; if yet it be in thy power to choose: fear tyranny, detest slavery, arm thyself, live free, or die.” On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry is reported to have said, “Give me liberty or give me death!” In March 1776, Virginia soldiers said that they were “determined to die or live free.”

“Live free or die” was frequently used in the French revolution, dating in print to at least 1790. An August 1798 song titled “Independence,” by a Mr. Dunham of Hanover, New Hampshire, had a chorus wit hthe words, “Unite—live free—or die!” In November 1808, an article in Philadelphia’s Aurora newspaper (reprinted in other newspapers) was titled “Live Free Or Die.”

Wikipedia: Live Free or Die
“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 speaks to 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 comes from a toast written by General John Stark on July 31, 1809. Poor health 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 his toast by letter:

Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.

The motto was enacted at the same time as the state emblem, on which it appears.
Similar mottos
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!

New Hampshire (official government website)
State Motto. The words “Live Free or Die,” written by General John Stark, July 31, 1809, shall be the official motto of the state.

It was the 1945 Legislature that gave New Hampshire its official motto and emblem, as World War II approached a successful end.

The motto became “Live Free Or Die,” as once voiced by General John Stark, the state’s most distinguished hero of the Revolutionary War, and the world famous Old Man of the Mountain was voted the official state emblem.

The motto was part of a volunteer toast which General Stark sent to his wartime comrades, in which he declined an invitation to head up a 32nd anniversary reunion of the 1777 Battle of Bennington in Vermont, because of poor health. The toast said in full: “Live Free Or Die; Death Is Not The Worst of Evils.” The following year, a similar invitation (also declined) said: “The toast, sir, which you sent us in 1809 will continue to vibrate with unceasing pleasure in our ears, “Live Free Or Die; Death Is Not The Worst Of Evils.”

New Hampshire Revised Statutes Annotated (RSA) 3:1, 8
Anderson, Leon. History. Manual for the General Court 1981.
Moore, Howard Parker. A Life of General John Stark of New Hampshire. Howard Parker Moore author and publisher, c.1949.

Wikipedia: Louis-Sébastien Mercier
Louis-Sébastien Mercier (6 June 1740 – 25 April 1814) was a French dramatist and writer.
L’An 2440 (The Year 2440)
Mercier’s L’An 2440, rêve s’il en fut jamais (literally, “The Year 2440: A Dream If Ever There Was One”; translated into English as Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred) is a utopian novel set in the year 2440. An extremely popular work (it went through twenty-five editions after its first appearance in 1771), the work describes the adventures of an unnamed man, who, after engaging in a heated discussion with a philosopher friend about the injustices of Paris, falls asleep and finds himself in a Paris of the future. Darnton writes that “despite its self-proclaimed character of fantasy…L’An 2440 demanded to be read as a serious guidebook to the future. It offered an astonishing new perspective: the future as a fait accompli and the present as a distant past. Who could resist the temptation to participate in such a thought experiment? And once engaged in it, who could fail to see that it exposed the rottenness of the society before his eyes, the Paris of the eighteenth century?”

Mercier’s hero notes everything that catches his fancy in this futuristic Paris. Public space and the justice system have been reorganized. Its citizens’ garb is comfortable and practical. Hospitals are effective and based on science. There are no monks, priests, prostitutes, beggars, dancing masters, pastry chefs, standing armies, slavery, arbitrary arrest, taxes, guilds, foreign trade, coffee, tea or tobacco and all useless and immoral previously-written literature has been destroyed.

Mercier’s future is not wholly utopian. The extremes of wealth and poverty have been abolished; nevertheless, the poor still exist. There is little economic development and the population of France has only increased by 50%.

Google Books
Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred
By Louis-Sébastien Mercier
Translated by William Hooper, M.D.
London: Printed for G. Robinson
Pg. 97:
Liberty begets miracles, it triumphs over nature, it causes harvests to grow upon rocks, it gives a smiling air to the most doleful regions; it enlightens the peasant, and makes him more penetrative than the proud slaves of the most polished court. Other climates, the most finished works of the creation, delivered up to servitude, exhibit nothing but desolated lands, pale and dejected villages, that dare not life their eyes to heaven. Choose then, man! be happy or miserable; if yet it be in thy power to choose: fear tyranny, detest slavery, arm thyself, live free, or die.

1 March 1776, Virginia Gazette (VA), pg. 3:
HEAD QUARTERS, Northampton courthouse, Feb. 22, 1776.
Mr. president and gentlemen of the committee for Northampton county, Virginia.
WE return thanks for your very polite address to us, and the companies under our command, upon our arrival at this place, as also for your attention in making the necessary provision for our reception. Impressed with a lively sense of the duty we owe to our country, and animated with the glorious cause of American liberty, we cheerfully left our habitations, thinking no difficulties too much for a people to encounter who were determined to die or live free, and shall esteem ourselves happy in proportion to the services we shall be able to render to the colony, and this county in particular.

2 July 1783, Freeman’s Journal (PA), pg. 1:
To the United States Congress Assembled.
An Address of the Officers of the Pennsylvania Line, now at Philadelphia.
AT the commencement of the war, when we saw the liberty of America invaded by one of the greatest powers in Europe, being stimulated with love to freedom and despising ferville subject on, we voluntarily engaged in the glorius cause of our country, resolving to live free or die honorably.

26 July 1791. General Advertiser (Philadelphia, PA), pg. 2:
As soon as the verification of the powers shall be finished, and the Assembly definitely appointed, all the representatives standing, and holding up their hands toward heaven, shall pronounce in the name of the people of France, the oath, To live Free, or Die
31 August 1791, New York (NY) Daily Gazette, pg. 2:
The Parisian National guard, to which were united the Swiss guards, and a great number of citizens, armed and unarmed, entered with uplifted hands. They marched across the hall, and stepping before the President exclaimed,

“We swear, we will live free or die!”

Google Books
Letters written in France in the summer of 1790 to a friend in England, containing various anecdotes relative to the French Revolution and memoires of M. and Madame du F
By Helen Maria Williams (1762-1827)
Dublin: Printed for G. Burnet
Pg. 105:
“Vivons libres, ou mourir!”*
*Let us live free, or die.

Google Books
November 1793, Anthologia Hibernica: or, Monthly collections of science, belles-lettres, and history, pg. 384:
The intercalary days of every fourth year is to be called LA SANS CULOTIDE, on which there is to be a national renovation of their oath, TO LIVE FREE OR DIE!

7 July 1798, Federal Gazette (MD), pg. 2:
The French have really succeeded in part of their designs against America;—that of exciting divisions; but they are divisions of soldiers, who swear to live free or die in the field.

4 August 1798, Companion (RI), pg. 4, col. 1:
A SONG for the 4th of July, ‘98—Written by Mr. Dunham, of Hanover, (N. H.)
Bright Goddess of the skies!
Behold thy sons unite,
Behold thine altars rise!
Lo, freeborn millions kneel and swear,
Their birth rights to maintain,
Resolv’d no foreign yoke to bear,
To drag no Tyrant’s chain.
Chorus. ‘Tis freedom’s day—let millions rise,
To freedom’s standard fly,
Obey Columbia’s call,
Unite—live free—or die!

2 May 1801, Impartial Observer (RI), pg. 4:
Americans, let us call to mind that great and ever memorable day, the 4th of July, 1776. When the glorious morn of that great day arrived—what heart was there, that did not then speak and proclaim in these words?—On this day, we proclaim to the world, in the name of the Supreme Being, that we will either live free or die.
Providence, April 19th, 1801.

10 July 1805, Republican Farmer (CT), pg. 3:
Militia men! rally round the standard of Independence, and swear to live free or die.

25 July 1808, World (VT), pg. 4, col. 2::
The aegis of justice waves over our land,
Our motto is, Die or live Free!

26 November 1808, Suffolk (NY) Gazette, pg. 1:
The time is come to try men’s principles—the time will soon come to try “men’s souls”—…
(Also reprinted in the Vermont Reporter and the Kentucky Reporter on December 15, 1808

14 July 1809, Weekly Wanderer (VT), pg. 3:
ON Tuesday the 4th inst. a number of the Republicans of Warren met at Mr. James Richardson’s, to celebrate American Independence; after raising the tree of LIBERTY, they paraded in a line facing it, and drank, with united hearts and hands the following toasts —

1. Fourth of July— May we celebrate this day as the birth-day of our emancipation from British slavery.

“‘Tis Freedom’s day, let millions rise,
To Freedom’s standard fly;
Obey Columbia’s call,
Unite, live free, or die.”

25 July 1809. Independent American (NY), pg. 1:
We rejoice that Heaven smiled on the efforts of those heroes, who regardless of danger, rushed on to victory, determined to “live free or die!”
(Oration by Aaron Blake—ed.)

1 September 1809, Weekly Wanderer (VT), pg. 1:
The exercises at the meeting-house were finished by the reading of the following Letter from the venerable veteran General JOHN STARK, by ANTHONY HASWELL Esq.: —

DERRYFIELD, 31st July 1809.
My friends and fellow soldiers,
I received yours of the 22d last, containing your fervent expressions of friendship, and your very polite invitation to meet, with you, to celebrate the 16th of August, In Bennington.

As you observe, I “can never forget, that” I “commanded AMerican troops” on that day in bennington.—They were men that has not learned the ART OF SUBMISSION, nor had they been trained to the ART OF WAR. But our “astonishing success” taught the enemies of liberty, that UNDICIPLINED FREEMEN are superior to veteran slaves. And I fear we shall have to teach this lesson anew to that perifidious nation.

Nothing could afford me more pleasure than to meet “THE SONS OF LIBERTY” on that fortunate spot. But as you justly anticipate, the infirmities of old age will not permit; for I am now four score and one years old, and the LAMP OF LIFE is almsot spent. I have of late had many such invitations, but was not ready, for there was not OIL enough in the LAMP.
I shall remember, gentlemen, the respect you, andthe ‘inhabitants of Bennington and its neighborhood” have shewn me, till I go to the country from which no traveller returns. I must soon receive marching orders.
P.S. I will give you my volunteer toast. LIVE FREE OR DIE.—DEATH IS NOT THE GREATEST OF EVILS.

6 June 1810, Berkshire (MA) Reporter, pg. 3:
Gen. Stark’s Toast.—The democrats omit no opportunity to laud and reiterate the volunteer toast which was made for Gen. Stark, at the celebration of the anniversary of the battle of Bennington, a year or two since. The toast is—

“Live free or die—death is not the greatest evil.”

A correspondent remarks, that if we literally construe this toast, it will appear that the general considered living free an evil, and dying an evil—but that to live free was the greatest evil—and of course that death was to be preferred. Is this the real sentiment of the democrats who have adopted the toast? or are they ignorant of the proper construction of the sentance?—Balance.

Google News Archive
17 April 1945, Nashau (NH) Telegraph, pg. 10, cols. 1-2:
General Stark Statement Claims
Attention Of General Court Today
Concord, April 17—Gen. John Stark, New Hampshire’s great Revolutionary military genius, claimed the attention of legislators today.
Tomorrow afternoon at 1:30 a special legislative committee will vote on its choice for a motto. The decision remains between “Live Free or Die,” and three top choices in a recently conducted newspaper contest. These three are “Strong and steadfast as our granite hills,” “Strong as our hills and firm as our granite,” and “Pioneers yesterday, today and tomorrow.”

Rep. William Weston of Hancock, veteran clergyman and chairman of the committee, said today that the decision of his group was expected to be made from among the four proposed mottos. The General Stark quotation is being pushed by Rep. J. Walker Wiggin of Manchester, Republican majority floor leader, on behalf of Molly Stark chapter, DAR, of his city, and the state DAR association.

Wiggin argues that the Stark motto “is a direct charge, one which has stood the test of the passing of time, and still has life and means something to every New Hampshire citizen, and will continue to do so in the future. The other mottos sound nice, but they smack too much of back-patting, and self-praise. Also, ‘Live free or die’ is brief, and would fit into space for a motto, and wouldd be easily remembered. That cannot be said of the other proposals.”

Live free or die! Happy John Stark Day!

Again, my name is Barry Popik. I’m a leading scholar of Americanisms. I work for free in the hope that someone cares about my country as I do. Some credit for my work would be nice!