If the Granite State is known for anything, it’s politics. Every four years politicos fix their sights on this tiny sliver of New England as New Hampshire hosts the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. State law requires New Hampshire to maintain its privileged primary position. This suits its residents, who seem to believe their idiosyncratic political culture makes them uniquely suited to the task of president-picking. Definable as neither red nor blue, liberal or conservative, Granite Staters sense it is their obligation to be set apart as the first interceptors of the next president on his or her road to the White House.

Yet aside from this quadrennial honor, New Hampshire seems to stand out little from its New England neighbors, at least at first glance. Like the rest of the region, it boasts a large Catholic population, a remnant of its nineteenth-century economy, which was dominated by the factories and textile mills that attracted Catholic immigrants looking for work. Today more than a third of Granite Staters identify as Catholic, making New Hampshire among the top ten most Catholic states in the nation (Maine is the only New England state not to make the list). Despite this denominational affiliation, the Granite State consistently ranks as the least or second-least religious state in the nation. In the Godless Northeast, New Hampshire’s secularity is not entirely exceptional: all six New England states rank among the least religious in the country.

In classic New England fashion, colonial New Hampshire began in religious dissent. In 1637, the Rev. John Wheelwright was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony along with his sister-in-law, the better-known Anne Hutchinson. While Hutchinson’s journey famously led her to Rhode Island, Wheelwright fled north. There he founded the town of Exeter along with a dissenting Congregational church. It is known today as the Congregational Church in Exeter, and like other “mainline Protestant” denominations, this UCC congregation is characterized by the progressive politics of the twenty-first century. The Rev. Nancy Rockwell ministers to the historic church, home also to New Hampshire Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan. Back in August, I asked Rockwell what it’s like to preside over a prominent congregation in the nation’s least religious state. “There’s something within the identity of the New Hampshire people,” she admits. “It’s something that makes them not want to be like those around them.”

Every election cycle that “something” is glaringly obvious: as the Northeastern corridor drowns in a sea of blue, New Hampshire has a curious tendency to blush red. New Hampshire, unlike her New England brethren, leans conservative. And yet, New Hampshire differs from most of “red America” because her conservatism does not correlate with higher levels of religiosity. In the 16 years that I have called New Hampshire home, there is one answer that New Hampshire natives offer more than any other in attempting to explain this particular eccentricity. Ask a Granite Stater why is New Hampshire so, and the answer is always the same. North or south, seacoast or mountains, residents recite four words in verbatim: Live Free or Die.

I am as guilty as my fellow Granite Staters in constantly announcing our state motto. After all, it’s everywhere: our license plates and welcome signs, t-shirts and bumper stickers, public parks and municipal buildings—not to mention our state-run liquor stores. What’s in a motto, anyway? Indiana’s is the shockingly banal “Crossroads of America,” Maryland’s Italian words translate to the puzzling adage “Manly deeds, womanly words,” and the one-word phrase “Hope” is all that’s offered to describe the spirit of Rhode Island. Other state mottos are in Latin. Such slogans are little more than generic aphorisms or patriotic anachronisms.

Unless you’re from New Hampshire.

The last state in the union without a motto, New Hampshire did not adopt the phrase until 1945. The expression echoes Patrick Henry’s famous utterance, “Give me Liberty, or give me Death!” The New Hampshire iteration honors her own Revolutionary War hero: native son John Stark led American troops to a crucial victory in the 1777 Battle of Bennington. General Stark’s success at Bennington convinced France to recognize the Republic of the United States and dispatch reinforcement troops. In a letter to his former troops and fellow Americans three decades later, Stark wrote:

As I was then, I am now, the friend of the equal rights of men, of representative democracy, of republicanism, and the Declaration of Independence—the great charter of our national rights—and of course a friend to the indissoluble union of these States. I am the enemy of all foreign influence, for all foreign influence is the influence of tyranny. This is the only chosen spot of liberty—this the only republic on earth.

He signed his letter with a toast: “Live Free or Die—Death is Not the Worst of Evils.”

New Hampshire proposed and adopted Stark’s phrase as the state motto in the wake of the Second World War, when the horrific reality of the potential for human evil overwhelmed the American psyche. The idea that life without freedom was unlivable was suddenly an urgent certainty. The motto was proposed in part to boost morale, to recognize publicly that only through freedom can individuals realize their full humanity, and that life and liberty are indelibly intertwined.

Today, “Live Free or Die” embodies the state’s distinctive policies: New Hampshire is the only state in the union without mandatory seatbelt laws for adult drivers and is one of three states without helmet requirements for motorcyclists; it is the only state that doesn’t require drivers to purchase car insurance; it has no sales, personal income, or capital gains tax; consumer-grade fireworks are legal; the state was the last in the country to mandate public kindergarten, not doing so until 2009; and the state has some of the least restrictive gun laws in the nation. New Hampshire has also shown a bipartisan commitment to protecting the right of same-sex couples to marry, and is making headway in decriminalizing marijuana.

It is this fiercely independent political culture that persuaded members of the Free State Project (FSP) in 2003 that New Hampshire would be the ideal state in which to launch their “libertopian” experiment, which entails recruiting “liberty-loving people” to relocate to New Hampshire in order to achieve libertarian reform through the ballot box. With one representative to every 3,250 residents, the New Hampshire state legislature claims the title as the third largest representative body in the world, following British Parliament and the U.S. Congress. This makes it relatively easy to win a state or local election, giving activists a prime path to power. In 2010, 13 people with explicit ties to the FSP were elected to the New Hampshire legislature; many more representatives openly endorse the project’s mission.

Even residents who oppose the Free Staters’ mission feel passionately about their state motto—though that was not always the case. When the motto was attached to all noncommercial state license plates in 1969, American resentment of the Vietnam War was at its peak. In 1971, in an anti-war protest, a resident named Sid Leavitt was arrested and fined for altering his plates to read “Live and Let Live.” The attention attracted by the Leavitt case prompted speculation that “Live Free or Die” was meant to be the war hawk’s answer to “Better Red than Dead.” When another resident, George Maynard, sued the state in 1975 after a similar offense, the motto had become a divisive political issue.

A Jehovah’s Witness, Maynard understood the motto to conflict with his religious beliefs. The obligation to display it on his vehicle was particularly distressing. Accordingly, he took to obscuring the motto with red reflective tape. In breach of a prohibition against modifying state license plates, Maynard was arrested three times in three months, and after refusing to pay the fines accrued, he spent 15 days in jail. Unable to drive his vehicle with his altered plates and unwilling to drive with unaltered plates, Maynard also lost his job. When he sued the state, he testified in the affidavit: “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. […] I refuse to be coerced by the state into advertising a slogan which I find morally, ethically, religiously, and politically abhorrent.”

Conservative Governor Meldrim Thomson and his allies fought Maynard’s case all the way to the Supreme Court. That the state of New Hampshire claimed such a passionate commitment to individual freedom yet forced a religious minority to display a sentiment in fundamental conflict with his beliefs was an irony not lost on the public. One Boston Globe editorial wrote that the state of New Hampshire was “oppress[ing] its citizens,” and several political cartoons satirized the motto with variations like “Live Free—Or Else!”

Ultimately, the Court sided with Maynard. In 1977, in the majority opinion, Justice Burger affirmed that “a system which secures the right to proselytize religious, political, and ideological causes must also guarantee the concomitant right to decline to foster such concepts. The right to speak and the right to refrain from speaking are complementary components of the broader concept of ‘individual freedom of mind.’” In an ironic twist, the state of New Hampshire learned that to be truly committed to the “Live Free or Die” spirit meant that individual citizens must be free enough to reject such freedoms. “I feel that life is more precious than freedom,” Maynard explained in one interview. “I would rather be in jail than dead.”

Maynard woke many Granite Staters up to the fact that they could not in good conscience embrace the motto and simultaneously force others to do the same. Religious belief (or lack thereof), understood in the broadest sense, structures an individual’s relationship with the world. The freedom to act in accordance with that worldview is the most basic yet profound way in which humans realize their humanity, and providing that freedom to others is the essential way we recognize humanity in others. The meaning of “Live Free or Die” can therefore be understood as a celebration of the human spirit, a spirit truly realized through political freedom.

Perhaps it is fitting then that on a craggy cliff in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, a face in profile of an old, wizened man once jutted out from the rocky wilderness. Although the Old Man of the Mountain crumbled and collapsed in 2003 after a half-century of preservation efforts, the Great Stone Face remains the rugged symbol of New Hampshire individualism and independence. “Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades,” wrote native son and statesman Daniel Webster. “Shoe makers hang out a gigantic shoe; jewelers a monster watch, and the dentist hangs out a gold tooth; but up in the Mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men.”


Madeline DeSantis is a political columnist, local activist, and event organizer in her home state of New Hampshire. She earned her Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School in 2012. Follow her @maddiedesantis.