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The state motto of Pennsylvania is “Virtue, Liberty, and Independence.” This particular phrase was adopted by the state government as an “official” motto in 1875, and since then has appeared on numerous materials and documents, and is featured on the state’s coat of arms. The exact origins of the motto aren’t entirely clear, but it’s likely that the wording was heavily influenced by the Declaration of Independence, the seminal document that began the United State’s journey as an independent nation-state, free of the control of Great Britain. The Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, which is Pennsylvania’s largest city — and was also the first capital of the United States. Like most mottos, Pennsylvania’s “official” phrase is just one of many monikers attributed to the state. Its endorsement by the government is what sets it apart, and it joins the ranks of other official state identifiers, such as the state song, the state flower, and the state tree. In addition to giving residents a sense of unity and belonging, mottos and the like often capture something important about the state and its history.
Pennsylvania’s motto is directly related to its history as one of the first states of what would become the United States. It started out as one of the original 13 colonies that belonged to the crown of Great Britain. Beginning in 1681, the land was known a the “Pennsylvania colony,” and the city of Philadelphia became a center of political activity and commerce shortly thereafter. Leading thinkers and leaders including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington all made Philadelphia their home for at least temporary periods, and the State House there was where all the Founding Fathers met to draft the Declaration of Independence and, later, the Constitution. The newly formed Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was the second state to ratify the completed Constitution.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is still the state’s official name. The word "commonwealth" quite literally means "for the common weal," or for the good of all the people. The state motto of Pennsylvania directly reflects the desire for the people to work together as a whole using the values of virtue, liberty and independence. Most of the first states have mottos that capture something about their founding or their ties to the birth of the larger nation. For instance, the neighboring state of Delaware has a state motto that is nearly identical: "Liberty and Independence."
Pennsylvania’s state motto is expressed in the official state coat of arms, which is displayed on the state flag, among other places. That coat of arms was first designed in the late 1770s by a Pennsylvania iron merchant named Caleb Lownes. Lownes’ design was modified and redesigned several times before the 1870s, when the Pennsylvania state legislature decided to choose an official version. The coat of arms that was officially adopted in 1875 was almost the same as Lownes' original design, just with some tweaks to placement and color. It was at this point that the phrase "Virtue, Liberty and Independence" became the official state motto, declared by the government and never prominently challenged since.
The state flag has a field of blue behind the state's coat of arms, which includes a shield that features a merchant sailing ship, a plow, and three sheaves of wheat. These symbols represent the state's commerce, its industry and its resources. A black horse is on each side of the shield, and a bald eagle is perched above it. Under the shield are an olive branch and a banner that bears the motto.
In addition to use on the flag and the official coat of arms, Pennsylvania’s motto is also printed on numerous official documents and leaflets describing the state. It is used in tourism materials, for instance, as well as official correspondence. The phrase features on the commemorative Pennsylvania quarter, as well, which began being minted in 1999. In some instances it’s also been truncated in order to describe the state as “the state of independence,” a phrase that is printed on road signs at many of Pennsylvania’s borders.
Like most state mottos, the core purpose is usually to find some catchy way to describe the state, as well as capturing something about the residents and the state’s history. The characteristics of virtue, independence, and liberty were arguably as important to the original founders as they are today, and Pennsylvania takes particular pride in being the first — or at least one of the first — to pave the way for these sentiments to become instrumental to the nation as a whole.