On Thursday, without any substantive discussion and by a vote of 10-2, members of the Louisiana House Judiciary Committee approved sending one of the quirkiest bills of the current legislative session, state Rep. Richard Nelson’s HB 17, to the House floor for a full vote. Nelson’s bill would change Louisiana’s state motto to “We live and die for those we love,” an expression that may seem like a lyric from a country music song to those unfamiliar with 19th century Louisiana history.

“It’s another non-controversial Nelson bill, guys,” the freshman legislator joked after being introduced by the committee chair, state Rep. Randall Gaines.

Nelson, a libertarian-leaning Republican from Mandeville who the Times-Picayune lauded for bringing “a world of experience” after being elected in 2019 “despite [his] youth” (he turns 35 later this month), has also earned praise from something exceedingly rare in the highly polarized legislature, a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and a block of younger, more moderate Republicans, for introducing legislation that would end life sentences for juvenile offenders and a bill that seeks to legalize recreational marijuana, an effort that already made history simply by making it out of committee (the vote was 7-5).

A staggering 67% of Louisiana residents support the decriminalization of marijuana, according to a recent scientific poll by John Couvillon of JMC Analytics and Polling, up from 54% just last year. Nelson cites studies estimating a potential revenue boost of as much as $200 million a year. According to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, 1,362 people are currently incarcerated on marijuana offenses (the department notes that “some” are also incarcerated on other “charge(s)”). “A reduction in convictions could save Corrections $67.36 per day per offender and $24,586 annually ($67.36 per day per offender x 365 days) for those in a state facility,” writes Alan Boxberger, staff director of the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s office, in the fiscal note attached to Nelson’s bill. (For those wondering, 1,362 x $24,586 equals $33,486,132).

I mention this as a way of explaining, as a disclaimer, why I am personally persuaded when Nelson tells me that he specifically tasked his office with researching his proposed motto “We live and die for those we love” to ensure it was not, in any way, connected to the state’s shameful Confederate past. “I have no interest in fighting any kind of cultural battle over a motto that most citizens don’t even know exists,” he told me in an email.

Louisiana’s current motto, “Union, Justice, Confidence,” Nelson points out, was never specifically adopted as the state’s motto in statute, though this may be a distinction without much of a difference considering the motto does appear in the statute that defines Louisiana’s state flag.

The two nays were somewhat of an odd couple, Republican Mike Johnson of Pineville (not to be confused with the Republican congressman of the same name from Bossier City, and New Orleans Democrat Mandie Landry, who has emerged as a leading voice of the progressive left after joining the legislature last year. “I like ‘Union, Justice, Confidence’ just fine,” Landry told me, “and I didn’t like the new suggested quote. I don’t see the need for it either.”

I should make it clear that, for the reasons I outline below, I’m reluctant to make a definitive conclusion about the historicity of this specific expression or the motivation behind the use of a similar motto immediately following the adoption of the Articles of Secession and its popularization in post-Reconstruction Louisiana. That said, the proposed change clearly merits more scrutiny, particularly considering the lack of discussion during the bill’s hearing in front of the House Judiciary Committee. As our neighbors in Texas recently learned after state Rep. Briscoe Cain snuck in the expression “purity of the ballot box” in a new voter suppression bill, citing its use in the Texas state Constitution, sometimes, a simple and seemingly innocuous phrase is actually a euphemistic relic of a racist past.

****

Lousiana Gov. William C.C. Claiborne. Image source: Louisiana Digital Library. Image credit: Lamar White, Jr., Bayou Brief.

In 1813, less than a year after the Territory of Orleans became the State of Louisiana, its 37-year-old governor William Charles Cole Claiborne—a Jeffersonian Republican who continues to hold the distinction of being the youngest person ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (at the age of only 22) and who would later be known as the great-great-great-grandfather of Liz Claiborne, the American fashion designer, and the third-great-granduncle of both Rep. Lindy Boggs of Louisiana and Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island— began using his “private seal,” which depicted a mother pelican feeding her young, on official state documents.

At least one early iteration of the state seal featured the motto, “Justice, Union, Confidence,” alongside 18 stars, representing the number of states that belonged to the new nation.

According to the enabling legislation ratifying Louisiana statehood, Claiborne’s seal, likely for the sake of expediency, would be considered the imprimatur of government authority, in the event that the fledgling new state didn’t get around to adopting something else instead.

Claiborne’s mother pelican made sense for a number of reasons.

Brown Pelicans—the big-mouthed, loquacious, prehistoric creatures who have inhabited the planet for eons—thrived in abundance along the Gulf Coast, and their more attractive cousins, the majestic American White Pelicans, flew down every winter. The Brown Pelican may be the state bird, but it’s their vacationing relative who graces the state flag.

Louisiana state flag, updated in 2006. Courtesy of the Louisiana Secretary of State.

And, of course, because these birds were ancient, they were already a part of mythology and symbology, one that traces back to seventh-century Christendom.

Pelicans were often featured in compendiums known as bestiaries, “illuminated manuscripts featuring stories of real and imagined animals tied to Christian allegories,” explains Anastasia Pineschi in “The Pelican, Self-Sacrificing Mother Bird of the Medieval Bestiary,” a 2018 post for the Getty Museum’s Iris Blog as part of an undergraduate seminar taught by Meredith Cohen, a professor of Art History at UCLA.


Plate with Pelican in Her Piety
, 1400s, unknown artist, made in Dinant or Malines, Netherlands. Brass, 19 7/8 in. diam. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 64.101.1498. Gift of Irwin Untermyer, 1964. www.metmuseum.org

For the medieval monk Isidore of Seville, reverence was reserved for a particular kind of pelican indigenous to the Nile River Valley in Egypt: Those known to prey on and devour crocodiles and lizards. “The crocodiles and lizards that the pelican allegedly eats were read as symbols of the devil, because of the serpentine form the devil takes in the Book of Genesis to tempt Eve in the garden of Eden,” Pineschi writes. “By devouring these demons, the righteous pelican helped purify the world of sin.”

The notion of the “pelican in her piety” refers to the maternal act of self-sacrifice in which the mother punctures herself and nourishes her chicks with her own blood. “The standard pelican story begins with the mother pelican giving birth to a brood of young chicks,” explains Pineschi. “As the young grow, they become violent toward the parent that has selflessly cared for them, attempting to peck out her eyes and mutilate her. In anger she retaliates, striking her young dead, but after three days regrets her actions and pierces her own side with her beak. As she allows her blood to drip on the young, they revive and she dies, having made the ultimate sacrifice for her children.”

A Pelican Feeding Her Young (detail) in a bestiary, 1278–1300, unknown illuminator, Franco-Flemish. Tempera colors, pen and ink, gold leaf, and gold paint on parchment, 9 3/16 × 6 7/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XV 4, fol. 21v. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program.

Bill Claiborne, a Virginia native who arrived in Louisiana by way of New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Mississippi, didn’t make a secret of his fascination with pelicans, and so his decision to use the pelican in her piety as his “private seal” and thus the seal of the state he governed hardly seems surprising. It had the added benefit of appealing to the state’s substantial Catholic population, who were already acquainted with the iconography, and, more specifically, with its French Catholics, who saw in the mother pelican their motherland. (It’s worth mentioning that in earlier versions of Claiborne’s seal, the pelican looked like an eagle).

“It is also important to remember that in 1793, during the time of Louisiana’s Spanish colonial status, when the Catholic Diocese of Louisiana (now the Archdiocese of New Orleans) came into existence, its first Bishop chose the ancient Christian symbol of the ‘pelican in her piety’ to be the principal symbol on the diocesan coat of arms,” writes the Very Rev. Paul D. Counce, a New Orleans native, past national president of the Canon Law Society of America, and pastor of St. Joseph Cathedral in Baton Rouge, in a helpful comment on a 2016 article in Country Roads Magazine by University of Louisiana at Monroe Professor of History Terry L. Jones. “Thus for Gov. Claiborne the pelican was already a well-known symbol of one of Louisiana’s principal institutions, the Church. Just as the State adopted the ecclesiastical terminology of ‘parishes’ for its territorial subdivisions, so too did the State adopt the readily-recognizable symbol of Louisiana that already existed for the local Church in international law.” (This may be the first time I’ve ever referenced an online comment posted underneath a published essay as an authoritative source, but the Very Rev. Counce certainly qualifies as a subject-matter expert).

On Dec. 20, 1803, William C.C. Claiborne, then serving as the territorial governor of Mississippi, wrote Sec. of State James Madison. “We have the satisfaction to announce to you that the province of Louisiana was this day surrendered to the United States by the commissioner of France; and to add, that the flag of our country was raised in this city amidst the acclamations of the inhabitants.” The following year, President Thomas Jefferson would nominate and the Senate would confirm Claiborne as governor of the Territory of Orleans.

Of course, Claiborne was neither French nor Catholic. His father’s family came to America from Kent, England. And he was a Protestant. In fact, after his death in 1817, Claiborne was first buried in Saint Louis Cemetery #1 in New Orleans, a resting place meant only for Catholics. His body was later exhumed and then reinterred in the ecumenical cemetery in Metairie.

Some have speculated that Claiborne’s seal had less to do with appeals to French Catholics and more to do with his association with the freemasons.

“(In 1812) Claiborne replaced an eagle on the Louisiana seal with the pelican scene still seen on the state flag today,” the Masonic Library and Museum Foundation of Louisiana explains on its website. “There is debate over the reason he chose this as the seal. However, the pelican piercing its own breast to feed its young is one of the emblems of the Masonic Degree of Knight Rose Croix, which is the 18th degree in the Scottish Rite, also known as the Knight of the Eagle and Pelican. Perhaps it was the symbol’s masonic association which led the governor to select the pelican to replace the eagle on the seal of the 18th state.”

Regardless of how or why Claiborne chose it for the state seal, there is no disputing the fact that the pelican has been a prominent part of Louisiana’s “brand” since the moment it achieved statehood. The question of its motto, however, is a little more complicated.

Conjectural View of the Government House, 1761, by Henry W. Krotzer, Jr., draftsman and artist, 1960s. Courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection, a gift of Leonard V. Huber. “Dating to 1761, the Government House (or State House) was one of the last governmental buildings constructed in the French regime. Depicted here in a conjectural sketch as it may have looked in 1800, it occupied a site on Decatur and Toulouse streets and survived the great fires of 1788 and 1794. Until it burned in 1828, the Government House was the seat of the Louisiana Legislature.” — “Between Colony and State: Louisiana in the Territorial Period, 1803-1812,” The Historic New Orleans Collection Quarterly, Volume XXVI, Number 4, Fall 2009.

Even though various versions of the “pelican in her piety” have been featured on the state seal since 1812 and although there had been at least one version of a flag featuring the heraldic charge in 1800, the final year in which the region was a governorate and administrative district of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, the pelican didn’t make an appearance on the state flag until January 26, 1861, the third and final day of the secession convention.

“[B]y an overwhelming vote of 113 to 17, the delegates enacted a secession ordinance, and Governor [Thomas Overton] Moore joined them in replacing the American flag with an eight-foot banner depicting a pelican feeding its young,” John Sacher, a professor of History at the University of Central Florida, writes in “‘Our Interests and Destiny Are the Same:’ Gov. Thomas Overton Moore and Confederate Loyalty,” a 2008 essay published in Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association. “Two months after severing themselves from the United States, Louisianians gave up their independence and officially joined the Confederate States of America.”

The pelican’s presence, however, was temporary, semi-official only during those two months in which Louisiana was an “independent state” and soon replaced with the Confederate battle flag.

A color-corrected approximated rendering of the flag of Louisiana’s Secession Ordinance Convention, Jan. 1861. Note the presence of a pelican in her piety in the gold canton. There are other renderings one can find online that are more precisely drawn, based on the description provided in the historical record. This image superimposes the colors on an actual “Bible-sized” flag that belongs to a private collection. Image credit: Lamar White, Jr. | Bayou Brief.

It’s also during the secession convention that we find the first official reference to a new motto. An excerpt from an article published in the Defiance Democrat of Defiance, Ohio, Aug. 14, 1869:

Significantly, much like the pelican flag that may have flown in the final year of Spanish rule, Louisiana had a different motto before joining the United States: Non Sibi, Sed Suis, which translates from Latin as “Not for oneself, but for one’s own” (the more colloquial translation is, “Not for oneself, but for others”). This should sound familiar to any graduate of the original University of Louisiana, which was founded in 1834 but privatized and renamed in 1888 to honor its most generous benefactor, Paul Tulane of Princeton, New Jersey. Tulane’s seal features the heraldic charge of the pelican in her piety, as well as the declaration in Latin.

Similar Latin expressions have been used to caption the pelican in piety for centuries. Take, for example, this medal from 1667 honoring Pope Clement IX. Aliis Non, Sibi Clemens (Mercy for others, not for himself).

Source: Virtus Collection

But in Louisiana, prior to the Civil War, objects with the heraldic charge of the pelican in her piety paired with the phrase “I die for those I love” were usually family crests, and almost exclusively, the expression was in French. Certainly it had never been used as a motto of state government. After all, Louisiana already had a motto: Justice, Union, Confidence. The motto was changed to Union, Justice, Confidence at the beginning of Reconstruction.

Indeed, the first documented record of the motto proposed by state Rep. Nelson—”We live and die for those we love”— was in Richard Wilmer’s 1865 novel The Heroine of the Confederacy: Truth and Justice:

Source: Archive.org

The expression disappears nearly entirely during Reconstruction, and importantly, reemerges only after President Rutherford B. Hayes recalled federal troops from Louisiana and handed control of state government back to the virulently white supremacist Southern Democrats who had been largely sidelined in the 12 years that had elapsed since Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

Less than five months after the end of Reconstruction, on Sept. 16, 1877, there’s a reference in the Times-Picayune to a poem written by Timothy Linkiwater and performed by “little Katie Brown” that includes the line “I live and die for those I love.”

In 1879, the Louisiana Bond Commission created an unofficial state seal with the pelican in her piety and the motto underneath. At the time, several state departments created their own versions of the state seal, all featuring the pelican. It also appeared on a Louisiana New Consolidated Bond in 1892.

Louisiana New Consolidated Bond, 1892. Courtesy of state Rep. Richard Nelson, State of Louisiana.

The 1886 compendium Miscellaneous Literary, Scientific, and Historical Notes, Queries, and Answers, for Teachers, Pupils, Practical and Professional Men includes the mottos of what was then the country’s 45 states and territories. “Louisiana—’Justice, Union, and Confidence.’ There is another motto attributed to this State: ‘We live and die for those we love.’ Supposed to allude to the pelican and her young in the State arms.”

****

Why was there a competing state motto?

Unfortunately, we can only speculate; however, considering its emergence both in the immediate aftermath of secession and then again in post-Reconstruction Louisiana and in the first two decades of the 20th century, a period in which the Lost Cause Movement was ascendant, it seems fairly obvious that the motto, with its bellicose and macabre undertones, offered a way to signal support for the secessionist and later the Confederate cause and to pay tribute to the “sacrifices” of Louisiana troops killed during the Civil War, while also making a clear distinction with the official motto, which happened to prominently feature the word “Union.”

As an added bonus, like many tropes of the era, common in both the North and the South, the expression also cloaked itself in the language of religion.

All of this is worth consideration, because although the expression has occasionally resurfaced in recent years (“We live for those we love” is etched onto the cornerstone of the state Capitol, and a similar statement appears on the licenses issued by the Louisiana Bar Association. The phrase was also mentioned during a 2015 legislative prayer breakfast, which may explain its inclusion, only a few months later, in Gov. John Bel Edwards’ first inaugural address), its meaning to the men who popularized its use as an expression of state government still matters.

“As you noted, I have significant other battles going on in the legislature,” Nelson wrote in an email responding to my questions about the motto (I also commended him for his bills on marijuana decriminalization and ending life sentences for juvenile offenders), “and this is just a simple bill to change something I thought could be improved. If it is controversial beyond just the normal resistance to any kind of change, I will just park the bill.”