Part of an occasional series answering readers’ questions about Maine. 

How did Dirigo become Maine’s motto?

As state mottos go, Dirigo is hard to beat. It’s succinct, meaningful and memorable, even if it does come from a dead language.

Latin for “I direct” or “I lead,” Maine’s motto appears on a small banner beneath the North Star that shines at the top of the state seal and the state flag. Through the years, businesses, government programs and schools in Maine have adopted Dirigo as their name.

In RSU 56, which serves students from the towns of Canton, Carthage, Dixfield and Peru, people take pride in the fact that the elementary, middle and high schools are named Dirigo, which is pronounced DEE-ri-go, not deer-EYE-go. They even talk about the “Dirigo Magic” that produces outstanding students and community members, said Pamela Doyen, district superintendent and principal of Dirigo High School.

“We hope we can prepare students to be purpose-filled members of society,” Doyen said. “We hope they can lead positive change in the world.”

Said with vigor, Dirigo sounds like a rallying cry worthy of the first state to see the sun rise each day and lead the country in many other ways through the years.

But exactly who’s responsible for choosing Maine’s motto after it became a state on March 15, 1820, is a bit of a mystery.

“There are no records indicating how the motto was developed or selected,” said David Cheever, former state archivist and vice chairman of Maine’s Bicentennial Committee. “It was a different time. Things weren’t done the way they are today. Nobody was disputing that Dirigo was a good idea or offering an alternative.”

Cheever figures it was a pretty perfunctory process. Every state had a motto, a seal and a flag. So when Maine finally became a state, after a somewhat contentious separation from Massachusetts, a committee was named to design a state seal.

William Moody of Saco, first president of the Maine Senate, oversaw the process. Col. Isaac Reed of Waldoboro is credited with writing the description and explanation of the seal that was approved by the Legislature on June 9, 1820. The bit about the motto is brief:

“The motto, in small Roman capitals, shall be in a label (that reads) DIRIGO.” The label would be located between the star – “the mariner’s guide … over the pathless ocean to the desired haven” – and a shield featuring a moose, a pine tree, a farmer and a sailor.

While the exact person responsible for the motto is unknown, Reed’s involvement in designing the seal shows how far he and his town had come since the factious years before the District of Maine separated from Massachusetts.

Born in Littleton, Massachusetts, and educated at Harvard, Reed moved to Waldoboro in 1808 at age 25. He set up a law practice, married the widow of a wealthy merchant and was appointed colonel of the local militia. Within a few years, Reed was elected a town selectman and representative to the General Court of Massachusetts.

By 1816, Reed had moved his family into a mansion on Glidden Street known more recently as the Col. Isaac Reed House. Considered an outstanding example of Federal-style architecture and craftsmanship, the house was attributed to Nicholas Codd, an accomplished regional builder of the era, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places until it was destroyed by fire in 2017.

The Reed mansion in Waldoboro before the fire. Town of Waldoboro

It was in the Reed mansion that the colonel and his stepdaughter, Bertha Smouse, may have worked on the state seal project, though his involvement is a bit surprising since he campaigned against Maine becoming a state.

A member of the conservative Federalist Party, Reed led Waldoboro residents in opposing separation from Massachusetts through the final vote to approve statehood, according to the 2005 application to place the house on the National Register.

“When sent by the town to the 1816 Constitutional Convention in Brunswick, Reed argued strongly against separation from Massachusetts, as he did again in Portland in 1819,” the 25-page application states.

In 1816, eligible men in Waldoboro voted 306-11 against statehood; in July 1819, the town voted 280-24 to remain part of Massachusetts.

“When the state constitution was voted on in December of that year, most of Waldoboro’s voters stayed away from the polls, resulting in a ratification vote with 33 voters approving the constitution and only two objecting,” the application states.

Once the statehood question was settled, Waldoboro voters elected Reed to be their first representative in the Maine Legislature, where he was named to the state seal committee.

Though no official records exist for the committee’s deliberations, the Portland Gazette published an article about the state seal on June 12, 1820: “We understand that the emblems for the seal of the state were proposed by Benjamin Vaughn, Esquire of Hallowell … and that the motto, description and explanation are from the pen of Colonel Isaac G. Reed.”

The Maine Library Bulletin of 1930 found that “it is generally conceded that (Reed) was the author of the detailed and somewhat flowery description of the (seal) and the symbols comprising it. It is said that the final sketch presented with the report (to the Legislature) was the work of Miss Bertha Smouse, a step-daughter of Colonel Reed.”

However, the bulletin concluded, Reed’s descendants couldn’t verify their family members’ involvement in designing the seal. “And while (Bertha Smouse) could have had a hand in drawing the seal, there is no evidence to support this claim,” the National Register application states.

Compared to other state mottos, Dirigo has held up well. New York’s motto, Excelsior, Latin for “Ever Upward,” is better known today as packing material. California’s Gold Rush-relevant Eureka! – Greek for “I have found it” – can be found on vacuum cleaners.

The motto of Massachusetts – Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem, Latin for “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty” – is both long and bewildering. And the motto of Texas – Friendship – is short and inspirational but has proven challenging in the context of modern politics.

Across the centuries, Dirigo has proven to be an appropriate motto for Maine leaders in politics and other fields.

In the 1850s, Maine spearheaded the temperance or prohibition movement, was a leader in the fight against slavery and helped to form the fledgling Republican Party, with Hannibal Hamlin of Paris becoming the first Republican vice president with Abraham Lincoln as president.

Maine distinguished itself during the Civil War, when Brig. Gen. Joshua Chamberlain of Brunswick led the 20th Maine infantry in successfully defending Little Round Top in the Battle of Gettysburg, then presided over Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House.

“As Maine goes, so goes the nation” was a popular phrase through the 1930s because Maine’s gubernatorial election, formerly held in September, often predicted the party that would win the presidency in November.

U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Skowhegan, a Republican, was the first woman to represent Maine in Congress, from 1940 to 1973, and the first woman to serve in both houses. She is remembered for her 1950 anti-McCarthyism speech, “A Declaration of Conscience,” and in 1964 was the first woman to be nominated for the presidency at a major party’s convention.

In 2002, under independent Gov. Angus King, now a U.S. senator, Maine adopted the first program in the United States to equip all public school students with laptop computers. In November 2012, Maine, Maryland and Washington became the first states to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote.

Some Maine businesses have chosen the name Dirigo as an outward expression of their goals, including Dirigo Federal Credit Union, which has branches in Auburn, Mechanic Falls, South Paris and Lewiston, where it recently opened new headquarters.

Formerly Rainbow Federal Credit Union, it went through a “rebranding” in 2017 that included choosing a new name that both reflected a step into the future and reaffirmed a commitment to founding values, said Nicole Mailhot, the credit union’s chief business officer.

“Dirigo is kind of ingrained in us as a concept,” Mailhot said. “We like to say we’re leading the way.”


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