As West Virginia celebrates its 146th birthday, residents ponder meaning, relevance of Montani Semper Liberi.
Emblazoned upon the state flag and seal, the Latin phrase Montani Semper Liberi means “Mountaineers are always free.”
Although West Virginians see the motto every time they look at a state flag, how often do we really think about its meaning? And how often do state leaders take it into consideration while conducting state business?
State residents seem to generally believe the motto is still as relevant today as it ever was. It is a way of expressing the ideals of both the state and the country, said Marjorie Webb of Charleston.
“I think it’s fitting,” she said. “When it talks about the Mountaineers always being free, it means a lot more than what people give it credit for. It goes along with the whole idea of what America stands for, what we value as a country.”
Although the state is a very different place from what it was when we broke away from Virginia during the Civil War, the motto still is relevant, said Ron Justice, mayor of Morgantown.
“I think the motto still applies today,” he said. “When I think of the motto I think of the freedom and rights that we have as people and how many times we take those freedoms for granted. I also think of freedom in the sense of geography. Given our mountains and beauty, we have many areas that continue to be undisturbed where you get the feeling of freedom and space.
“I do think we have more government control today than when the motto was first conceived, however, I think we still enjoy the conceptual freedoms that derived the motto ‘mountaineers are always free.'”
To state Auditor Glen B. Gainer III, the motto has a more spiritual meaning, which he put in the form of a poem:
Mountaineers are always free.
We answer only to a higher power, that is, our God. We obey our consciences, our hearts — not the ephemeral ebb and flow of public fashion.
West Virginians are as rugged as our mountains; as generous as our abundant wildlife; as complex as our network of clean, free-flowing rivers.
When our state was admitted to the Union in 1863, West Virginians adopted the Great Seal. A large rock, which signifies strength and stability, adorns its center. Below the stone, a farmer and a miner, these precious words curl upward — Montani Semper Liberi.
As true today as yesterday, we Mountaineers esteem freedom, love elbowroom, appreciate autonomy and rejoice in the emancipation of all human beings.
To some, the motto expresses a sense of not only freedom, but also empowerment.
”I’ve always agreed with it and always believed Mountaineers should be free,” said Amanda Rogerson of Wheeling. “It’s very positive. I think it’s empowering.”
Different Kinds of Freedom
Of course, there are several ways to look at the issue. From an economic standpoint, we may not be as free as we would like to think we are, said Cal Kent, vice president for business and economic research at Marshall University.
“Being an economist, when I talk about freedom, I talk about economic freedom,” he said.
To illustrate the extent of our economic freedom, Kent pointed to the Economic Freedom Index, which is compiled annually by Forbes magazine and the Pacific Research Institute. In the 2008 report, West Virginia ranked 38th in the country.
Although that sounds bad, it is largely typical of states in the region. At ninth, Virginia ranks highest of the states that border West Virginia. But Maryland ranks 34, Kentucky is 40th, Pennsylvania 46th and Ohio is 44th.
“Compared to surrounding states, with the exception of Virginia, we have more economic freedom using the index,” Kent said. “We’ve stayed in that rank since 1999.”
The index is compiled by measuring variables like the state’s regulatory atmosphere and judicial system, both of which hurt the Mountain State, said Russell S. Sobel, professor of economics at West Virginia University. Recently, Sobel experienced the regulatory pitfalls of West Virginia first-hand while trying to help the wife of a new professor obtain a license to be a hair stylist.
“She has been cutting hair for five years in Mississippi,” he said. “I checked with the state Board of Barbers and Cosmetologists.”
A staff member at the board told Sobel there was good news and bad news, he said. The good news was that there are plenty of jobs for stylists in the state. The bad news was it takes 2,000 hours of training to get a license.
“We’re the hardest state to get a license,” Sobel said. “… It’s stuff like that that hurts us.”
For those who take the motto more literally, there is more economic bad news, Kent said. The state is one of the most dependent on federal funds.
“That is true … primarily because of transfer payments from Social Security, (Supplemental Security Income) and Medicaid,” he said. “The fact is, we’re a poor state and we have a favorable matching formula (for grants).”
According to information from Kent, West Virginia receives $1.76 for every $1 of federal taxes paid. That puts the state at No. 5. In 2007, New Mexico was first at $2.03 for every $1 paid, he said.
And West Virginia has been in that shape for decades, Sobel said.
“A lot of it comes from the New Deal,” he said.
One figure that surprises Kent is that government employment in the state, as a percentage of the total work force, was 13.1 percent in 1970. The number peaked at 15 percent in the 1980s, and today it is back to 13 percent.
But it’s not just economic and political problems that have caused West Virginia to run afoul of its motto, said Jason Keeling, a Charleston-based blogger.
“The motto is not a … fully accurate representation of West Virginia,” he said. “Mountaineers are not always free. We have been bowing to outside interests that have exploited us. We might like to think of ourselves in that fashion, but we’re not free in many ways.”
For West Virginia Day this year, Keeling has invited readers of his blog — https://www.abetterwestvirginia.com/ — to submit their ideas for how to improve the state, he said. He wants to identify obstacles that are getting in the way of progress in West Virginia.
Although the motto might not be literally true in every respect today, it still does reflect the essence of the people living here, said West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine.
“West Virginia’s motto, ‘Montani Semper Liberi’ or ‘Mountaineers Are Always Free,’ reflects the independence and pioneering spirit that led our state’s forefathers to break away from Virginia and form a separate state,” he said. “That pioneering spirit is as important today as it was in 1863.”
And West Virginia still has that spirit when it comes to education, Paine said.
“Today, I’m proud that West Virginia is a pioneer in education by leading efforts to strengthen core subjects and incorporate 21st century skills into our public school curriculum,” he said. “We call it Global21: Students deserve it. The world demands it. The knowledge economy has changed how we communicate and just as our ancestors adapted to the harsh mountain conditions in West Virginia, so to must schools adapt so that our children will have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in a global economy.”
Teaching the state’s children about the meaning of the motto is important, said Kim Mason of Charleston.
“I think people have gotten away from it,” she said. “I’m a scout leader and we try to teach the kids about the heritage West Virginia has. So many people don’t realize it.”
Parkersburg resident Rhodessa Hoselton grew up knowing the importance of the motto and the state’s heritage even though she wasn’t born here.
“My mom is from West Virginia,” she said. “We traveled a lot because my dad was in the military. My mom always wanted to move back to West Virginia.”
But now she considers herself a West Virginian and works to teach her children about the state’s heritage, she said.
Time for a Change?
Perhaps it is time that the motto reflects today’s reality in West Virginia, said Jessica Crislip of Weston. A lot of people who are not native Mountaineers reside here today and the motto should include them and the new ideas in the state.
“It’s a great motto,” she said. “At the same time, I would like to see a more progressive and all-inclusive motto. It should be open to more things. It should be progressive and diverse.”
That might not be a bad idea since the current motto doesn’t always reflect reality, said A. Michael Perry, a Huntington businessman.
“I think it has more to do with the old-timer word ‘beholden,'” he said. “I think (the state’s founders) were proud of the fact that they were not beholden to anyone. … They were proud of the fact that they were independent. I would hope that’s still our motto and that people still understand what it means.”
If not, perhaps it is time for a new motto, Perry said.
When he started his blog in 2007, one of Keeling’s friends suggested using the tag line “Montani Semper Lenimentus,” which means “Mountaineers are Always Improving.”
“It’s more important to look at ourselves as improving,” he said. “We can’t really say we’re free … until we improve.”
Better West Virginia
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