The Language of Liberty: Part I

by Oliver D. Hoover

Part 3: Latin Mottoes

In previous installments of this series looking at the use of inscriptions on the coins of the American Confederation period, English legends (part 1) and Latin place and personal names (part 2) have already been discussed. (Part 1 can be found in the ANS Magazine’s Winter 2006 issue; part 2, in the Spring 2007 issue.) The present installment deals with the wide variety of Latin mottoes that appeared on the various coinages and patterns of the period. In the past, these sometimes quaint-sounding expressions have generally tended to be treated in cursory lists that give only the English translation (often imprecise or incorrect) of the Latin. The following annotated list of Latin mottoes not only gives translations but also presents the sources of the mottoes—some of which go back to the sixteenth century—and interprets their meaning with respect to the political, cultural, and religious context of late eighteenth-century America.

CONSTELLATIO NOVA / NOVA CONSTELLATIO (“The New Constellation”)—Robert Morris’s confederation patterns (1783) (Fig. 1); CONSTELLATIO NOVA coppers (1783 and 1785) (Fig. 2); IMMUNE COLUMBIA patterns (1785). The origin of this inscription is well known. It derives from the description of the flag of the United States resolved upon by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777. According to the resolution, the flag’s canton—thirteen white stars on a field of blue—was intended to represent “a new constellation” (i.e., the United States) shining out among the old stars of the world powers.


Fig. 1. United States. AR NOVA CONSTELLATIO mark pattern, 1783 (forgery). Breen 1100. (ANS 1942.55.2, gift of C. Wurtzbach) 33 mm.


Fig. 2. United States. AE CONSTELLATIO NOVA “copper,” 1785. Breen 1111. (ANS 1941.131.1005, gift of George Hubbard Clapp) 28 mm.

In the past, there has been some controversy over the proper word order of this legend. Breen argued for the formulation CONSTELLATIO NOVA, based on classical Latin practice, although neo-Latin usage tended to prevail in North America (see part 2). More recently, Eric Newman has suggested that the neo-Latin formulation NOVA CONSTELLATIO was more likely on the basis of documentary evidence and a review of the interpuncts between words. However, this view has now been challenged by Louis Jordan, who shows through additional documents and a closer look at the punctuation that CONSTELLATIO NOVA was the intended word order for the coppers and the IMMUNE COLUMBIA patterns, whereas NOVA CONSTELLATIO was probably intended for Morris’s Confederation patterns, which served as their model.

E PLURIBUS UNUM (“Out of Many, One”)—New Jersey (1786-1789) (Fig. 3); James F. Atlee’s confederation patterns (1787) (Fig. 4); Ephraim Brasher’s New York doubloons (1787) (Fig. 5). This is the standard motto used to express the organization of the politically, economically, and in many ways even culturally separate thirteen colonies into the single political and economic entity of the United States. It continues to appear on modern American metal and paper currency.


Fig. 3. United States: New Jersey, Rahway Mills. AE “copper,” 1786. Maris 18-n. (ANS 0000.999.28474) 28 mm.


Fig. 4. United States. AE IMMUNIS COLUMBIA “copper” pattern, 1787 (cast forgery). Breen 1137. (ANS 0000.999.28464) 26 mm.


Fig. 5. United States: New York. AV doubloon pattern, 1787. Counterstamped with the initials of Ephraim Brasher. Breen 981.5. (ANS 1969.62.1, ex Norweb coll.) 30 mm.

EXCELSIOR (“Ever Upward”)—Ephraim Brasher’s New York doubloons (1787) (Fig. 5); EXCELSIOR coppers (1787) (Fig. 6); James F. Atlee’s patterns for Thomas Machin (1787). This is the official motto of New York State and refers to the pursuit of lofty goals.


Fig. 6. United States: New York. AE EXCELSIOR “copper” pattern, 1787. Breen 980. (ANS 1899.25.1, purchase) 27 mm.

FUGIO (“I Fly”)—Continental currency patterns (1776) (Fig. 7); FUGIO cents (1787) (Fig. 8). This motto can only be understood in the context of the associated type of the sun hovering above a sundial. The type acts as a form of rebus, indicating that Time is “speaking” the motto, and that it is he who flies. When taken in connection with the associated English legend MIND YOUR BUSINESS, we are essentially presented with the Protestant work ethic in motto form: Do not waste time, but take care of business while opportunity remains available.


Fig. 7. United States: Continental Congress. Tin Continental Currency pattern, 1776. Newman 3-D. (ANS 1911.85.7, purchase) 38 mm.


Fig. 8. United States. AE FUGIO cent, 1787. Newman 11-B. (ANS 1949.136.9, gift of the Bank of New York) 28 mm.

Although Breen took FUGIO to be derived from an ode (3.29.48: quod fugiens semel hora vexit) of the Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace), it is somewhat more likely to come from the Georgics (3.284: sed fugit interea, fugit inreparabile tempus) of Publius Virgilius Maro (Virgil), the ultimate source for the expression “time flies.” On the other hand, it is probable that the sentiments of these Roman authors are only being quoted at second hand through a later source. Fugio, which does not take this grammatical form (first-person singular present indicative active) in either the lines of Horace or Virgil, may be drawn from a more recent tradition—that of mottoes specifically designed for sundials. A number of well-known English stained-glass sundials of the seventeenth century, including the Norwich Oxford Dial (1648), the Marlborough Dial (c. 1653), the Northill Rectory Housefly Dial (1664), the Weaver’s Company Dial (1669), and the Nailsea Court Dial (1686), all bear the motto DUM SPECTAS FUGIO (“While you watch, I [time] fly”). While all of these examples date to the later seventeenth century, the fad for using the motto dum spectas fugio on sundials continued into the eighteenth century, as evidenced by the first verse of the English secular tune “Song Made on the Motto of Dr. Blow’s Sundial.”

The evident great popularity of this motto strongly suggests that it may be the true source of the simple FUGIO of the continental currency patterns and the FUGIO cents. Indeed, the layout of the former, involving a central type in a circle surrounded by a band in which the motto appears along with the sun, makes one wonder whether the designers of the patterns, Benjamin Franklin and David Rittenhouse, both of whom had clockmaking skills, were not themselves partially influenced by the design of stained-glass sundials such as the Northill Rectory Housefly Dial. Indeed, in 1756, Rittenhouse is reported to have made an eight-day clock bearing the inscriptions TEMPUS FUGIT and MIND YOUR BUSINESS for his brother-in-law. The idea of using a rebus for the central type might even have come from such dials. The Northill Rectory Housefly Dial (Fig. 9) is so-called because its maker, John Oliver, embedded a real fly into the glass of the central circle, apparently to reinforce the idea of time flying. In the surrounding legend time flies (I fly), while time’s fly (I, fly) appears in the center. Rittenhouse was a precision clockmaker and as such would have been familiar with the traditional inscriptions used for sundials and other timepieces.


Fig. 9. The Northill Rectory Housefly Dial, by John Oliver, 1664 (Michael Cowham).

INDE ET LIB (Independentia et Libertas, “Independence and Liberty”)—Connecticut (1785-1788) (Fig. 10) and Vermont (1785-1788) (Fig. 11) coppers. The naming of the political ideals of independence and liberty on the Connecticut and Vermont coppers is probably drawn directly from the closing sentences of the Declaration of Independence, in which it is asserted: “That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.” In classical Latin, the usual word for “free” is liber from libertas (“freedom,” “liberty”), while independens (“independent”) is a neo-Latin form derived from independentia, a word whose connection to English “independence” is obvious. It has already been shown in Part 1 why this legend should be construed as Latin, rather than French.


Fig. 10. United States: Connecticut. AE “copper,” 1787. Miller 15-F. (ANS 1931.58.489, ex Canfield coll.) 28 mm.


Fig. 11. United States: Vermont, Machin’s Mills. AE “copper,” 1788. Ryder 27. (ANS 1979.124.33, purchase) 27 mm.

INIMICA TYRANNIS (“Enemy to Tyrants”)—CONFEDERATIO patterns (1785) (Fig. 12). This motto is derived from a couplet that the English political theorist Algernon Sidney (1622-1683) was said to have inscribed in the Book of Mottoes in the King’s Library in Copenhagen, Denmark. The original full motto was Manus haec inimica tyrannis / Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem (“This hand is an enemy to tyrants / By the sword it seeks restful peace under liberty”), apparently referring to the hand of the famous Roman tyrannicide Marcus Brutus. As Sidney’s pro-republican political views were well appreciated by American revolutionaries and his posthumously published Discourses Concerning Government (1698) were popular among the political thinkers of the Revolution, it is not overly surprising that the first line of his bon mot was later adapted for use on the coin patterns of the Confederation period. Indeed, the second line had already been adopted wholesale as the state motto of Massachusetts in 1775 and appeared on the back of Paul Revere’s “sword in hand” legal tender bills issued from August 18, 1775, to November 17, 1776 (Fig. 13).


Fig. 12. United States. CONFEDERATIO AE decad pattern, 1785. Breen 1123. (ANS 1941.147.3, gift of George Hubbard Clapp) 28 mm.


Fig. 13. United States: Continental Congress. 36-shilling paper note, December 7, 1775. Newman, p. 165. (ANS 0000.999.29699) 74 x 101 mm.

On the coinage, INIMICA TYRANNIS reflects the intense republicanism and antimonarchic sentiment of the early United States. The primary tyrant in this case is certainly King George III, who is called by this derisive title several times in the Declaration of Independence. Presumably, the legend is a generalization based on the singular American experience of this British monarch, since no other foreign rulers or local figures of the period seem to fit the bill of tyrant. The only other monarchs with direct interests in North America at the time were the Bourbon kings Louis XVI of France (Fig. 14) and Carlos III of Spain (Fig. 15), who behaved in a most untyrannical manner toward the Americans by providing financial and material support for the Revolution.


Fig. 14. Kingdom of France: Bordeaux. Louis XVI. CU sol, 1784. Gadoury, MRF 350. (ANS 1962.57.42, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Maxime Hermanos) 30 mm.


Fig. 15. Kingdom of Spain: Lima, Peru. Carlos III. AV 8-escudos, 1788. Friedberg, Peru 32. (ANS 1967.113.657, purchase) 37 mm.

IMMUNE COLUMBIA (“With America Untaxed”)—IMMUNE COLUMBIA patterns (1785) (Fig. 16). The issue of taxation first became a flashpoint for colonial discontent with the passing of the Sugar Act (1764) and the Revenue and Stamp Acts (1765) by Parliament, all of which unilaterally imposed duties on various goods imported by and used in British North America. Although the Stamp Act was ultimately repealed, it was almost immediately replaced by the Townshend Revenue Acts (1767), which also sparked colonial outrage and violence. These were repealed in 1770, but the new Tea Act (1773), which placed a threepence tax on imported tea, further annoyed the colonists. The deeply offensive nature of these taxes to colonial sensibilities is shown by the Declaration of Independence (1776), which, among other charges, indicted King George III “For imposing Taxes on us [the American colonists] without our Consent.” The legend IMMUNE COLUMBIA celebrates the colonies’ escape from the taxation without representation to which they had been subjected since the early 1760s.


Fig. 16. United States: New York. AE IMMUNE COLUMBIA “copper,” 1785. Breen 1117. (ANS 0000.999.28547) 28 mm.

Breen believed the spelling immune to be an error for immunis. While this may be so, it is just as likely that the engraver intended to use the ablative rather than the nominative form, the difference being between “America Untaxed” (nominative) and “With America Untaxed” (ablative).

IMMUNIS COLUMBIA (“America Untaxed”)—James F. Atlee’s confederation pattern (1787). This is simply the nominative form of IMMUNE COLUMBIA. For the political context of this legend, see above.

LIBER NATUS LIBERTATEM DEFENDO (“Born Free, I Defend Freedom”)—James F. Atlee’s Indian/State arms (Fig. 17) and Indian/eagle patterns for Thomas Machin (1787). From a legal standpoint, prior to the successful completion of the Revolution no American colonist was born free. Instead, he was born a subject of the British crown. Until the Treaty of Paris (1783) officially ceded British authority to the American states, the only people in North America who were truly born free were the Indians—although European colonial interests increasingly encroached upon this freedom. The nonnative inhabitants of New France were, of course, subjects of the French crown and therefore unfree as well. This fact was not lost on the colonists, who often found themselves envious of the kinds of freedoms enjoyed by their native neighbors. It is for this reason that Revolutionary cartoonists and, later, European medalists increasingly used the image of the Indian brave to personify the thirteen colonies and their aspirations. This association of freedom with the Indian may partly underlie the decision to dress as Mohawks when the Sons of Freedom held the Boston Tea Party, although the baser motive of concealing personal identities was almost certainly at work as well.


Fig. 17. United States: New York. AE LIBER NATUS LIBERTATEM DEFENDO “copper” pattern, 1787 (struck forgery). Breen 990. (ANS 1870.1.1) 27 mm.

When James F. Atlee paired the legend LIBER NATUS LIBERTATEM DEFENDO with the type of a standing Indian for his copper patterns, he was building on a longstanding ideology that cast the American revolutionary in terms of the freedom-loving Indian. This ideological construct continued to be expressed on American coinage well into the twentieth century, through the personifications of Liberty wearing native headdress (see the “Indian head” cents of 1859-1909 [Fig. 18] and the $10 gold eagles of 1907-1933 [Fig. 19]), and its continued reverberation has influenced the choice of obverse types for the “Indian head” nickel (1913-1938) and the Sacagawea dollar (2000-2006).


Fig. 18. United States: Philadelphia. CU cent, 1900. Breen 2036. (ANS 1944.49.20. Ex H. E. Gillingham coll.) 19 mm.


Fig. 19. United States: Philadelphia. AV $10 eagle, 1907. Breen 7097. (ANS 1980.109.2279, bequest of A. J. Fecht) 27 mm.

LIBERTAS JUSTITIA (“Liberty [and] Justice”)—Robert Morris’ confederation patterns (1783) (Fig. 1). Liberty and justice were two major political ideals that the American colonists believed to have been trampled on by royal authority. Almost all of the charges leveled against King George III in the Declaration of Independence (1776) can be reduced to complaints against real or perceived assaults on justice and freedom in the thirteen colonies. When the Constitution of the United States of America was framed in 1789, both justice and the blessings of liberty loomed large in the preamble to the articles. Their continued importance as ideals is shown by their inclusion at the end of the United States Pledge of Allegiance, drafted by Francis Bellamy in 1892.

LIBERTAS ET JUSTITIA (“Liberty and Justice”)—NOVA CONSTELLATIO coppers (1783-1785) (Fig. 2). This legend is identical to the preceding, except that the conjunction et (“and”) has been included. For the political context, see above.

NON VI VIRTUTE VICI (“Not by Force, [but] by Virtue, Have I Conquered”)—NON VI VIRTUTE VICI coppers (1786) (Fig. 20), James F. Atlee’s confederation pattern (1787). This motto is probably a reduced version of Non vi sed virtute, non armis sed arte paritur victoria (“Not by force but by virtue, not by arms but by the [rhetorical] art, is victory won”), which appears in the Sacrorum Emblematum Centuria Una (Cambridge, 1592) of Andrew Willet (1562-1621), an Anglican divine who believed that reasoned argument was a tool superior to persecution in attempting to convert Catholics to the Church of England. This sentiment is encapsulated by the Latin motto.


Fig. 20. United States: New York. AE NON VI VIRTUTE VICI “copper,” 1786 (forgery). Breen 1117. (ANS 1959.101.86, gift of Catherine E. Bullowa) 28 mm.

While Willet’s emblem book would have been well known to designers, his writings are also likely to have had a more general colonial readership. His son, Thomas Willet, emigrated from England to Plymouth aboard the Lion in 1632 and quickly became an important figure in New England, even serving as the first mayor of New York in 1665 and again in 1667. Andrew Willet was also the great-grandfather of Sarah Pierrepont, whose husband Rev. Jonathan Edwards was a primary force behind the First Great Awakening, a Protestant revival movement of the 1730s and 1740s that placed great emphasis on Divine Providence and personal justification through faith. Some scholars have seen the fiery rhetoric, individualism, and conflict with established authority that characterized the First Great Awakening as prefiguring features of the American Revolution.

It is not difficult to see echoes of the First Great Awakening in the adaptation of Andrew Willet’s motto for coinages of the confederation period. NON VI VIRTUTE VICI suggests that the American Revolution was brought to a successful conclusion not so much because of American military prowess but rather because the nobility of the ideals for which it was fought caused Divine Providence to shine on the revolutionaries. This is the same message encapsulated by the image of the Eye of Providence with the legend annuit coeptis (“He [God] is favorable to our undertakings”) that appears on the Great Seal of United States. This seal was officially adopted in 1782, although design elements had already appeared on the $40 continental currency note of April 11, 1778 (Fig. 21). Both the currency and the seal are likely to have influenced the Eye of Providence design used for Robert Morris’s confederation patterns, as well as for NOVA CONSTELLATIO coppers, IMMUNE COLUMBIA patterns, and Vermont coppers. The Eye of Providence still appears on the back of the U.S. $1 Federal Reserve note.


Fig. 21. United States: Continental Congress. Paper $40 continental currency note, September 26, 1778. Newman, p. 42. (ANS 0000.999.29988) 72 x 93 mm.

The providential view of the Revolution represented by NON VI VIRTUTE VICI tends to obscure the unfortunate but important place of vis (“force,” “violence”) in the development of the American struggle for independence. It was not so much by the convincing power of their lofty ideals (as Andrew Willet might have preferred, had he been alive) but rather that of their fists and weapons that the Sons of Liberty compelled all British tax agents in the colonies to resign their posts and prevented American merchants from importing British trade goods. Likewise, it was not fear of virtue that drove almost fifty thousand United Empire Loyalists to flee to British Quebec and Nova Scotia but rather fear of the revolutionary Committees of Safety that regularly harassed British sympathizers beginning in 1775.

The alliterative formation of this motto using two nouns (vi and virtute) and a verb (vici) beginning with the letters “V” and “I” may possibly be intended to vaguely mirror Julius Caesar’s famous alliterative epigram of conquest: veni, vidi, vici (“I came, I saw, I conquered”). Nevertheless, it would be somewhat ironic if the author of this legend had Caesar in mind, since he was ultimately murdered by his colleagues for his abandonment of Roman republican principles and his attempts to set himself up as king. Julius Caesar was the ancient embodiment of all that the colonists had come to despise in King George III. Indeed, vis was seen by Benjamin Franklin (under the pseudonym “Clericus”) as a primary attribute of that king’s rule in the colonies, as evidenced by his explanation of the legend VI CONCITATAE (“raised by force”) on $30 continental currency notes (Fig. 22) published in the September 20, 1775, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette (information courtesy of Louis Jordan). See also VIM PROCELLARUM QUADRENNIUM SUSTINUIT (“It [the Liberty Tree in the vignette] has withstood the force of storms for four years”) on the $70 continental currency notes of January 14, 1779.


Fig. 22. United States: Continental Congress. Paper $20 continental currency note, May 10, 1775. Newman, p. 34. (ANS 0000.999.29840) 73 x 94 mm.

VIRT ET LIB (Virtus et Libertas, “Virtue and Liberty”)—NOVA EBORAC coppers (1787) (Fig. 23). It may be that the combination of virtue and liberty on the NOVA EBORAC coppers was intended to capture the proverb of Benjamin Franklin that appeared in Poor Richard’s Almanack (1738), in which he admonished readers, “Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power.” If a connection to the words of Franklin was intended, John Bailey, the designer of the coppers, must have felt rather smug about placing the two things that should not be sold onto a copper coin—an object regularly used to purchase much more mundane goods than wealth and power. On the other hand, the close pairing of the ideals of virtue and liberty was already extremely old by the time of Franklin’s writing. Their relationship was addressed already in the works of Roman authors including Titus Livius (c. 59 BC-AD 17) and Publius Cornelius Tacitus (c. AD 56-117) and continued to be a subject of interest to Enlightenment political philosophers such as Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Thus, Bailey could have derived VIRT ET LIB from any variety of sources, although Franklin’s literary influence in the early United States tends to make him a very attractive possibility.


Fig. 23. United States: New York. AE NOVA EBORAC “copper,” 1787. Breen 986. (ANS 0000.999.28466]]) 28 mm.

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