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Wave Free or Die: Should this be the new state flag?

Rep. Tim McGough, a Republican from Merrimack, wants to add "Live Free or Die" to the current state flag using Times New Roman typeface.
Courtesy of Rep. Tim McGough
Rep. Tim McGough, a Republican from Merrimack, wants to add "Live Free or Die" to the current state flag using Times New Roman typeface.

A group of state lawmakers have unfurled a proposal to change New Hampshire’s official state flag: They want to add the phrase “Live Free or Die,” which would be the first update to the flag’s design in more than 90 years.

The bill, HB 1016, seeks to print the famous words of General John Stark from 1809 — now the state motto — beneath the current state seal.

“It's time,” said the bill’s lead sponsor Rep. Tim McGough, a Republican from Merrimack. He said the current flag doesn’t inspire residents or visitors to the state and doesn’t stand out from other state flags with similar designs.

“We get lost in the shuffle,” said McGough. “And New Hampshire has never been like that.”

The current flag includes the official state seal centered onto a blue background, surrounded with a wreath of laurel with nine stars interspersed, in honor of New Hampshire becoming the ninth state.

That seal depicts the frigate USS Raleigh, one of the original warships of the U.S. Navy, which was built locally in 1776. The 32-gun ship was the first to carry the United States flag into sea battle.

The vessel had a “checkered career” according to the official state almanac. After its captain was dismissed, the ship was breached off the coast, then ”captured by British warships, and used for the remainder of the Revolutionary War against her own country.”

Nevertheless, the Raleigh is depicted in front of a rising sun on all official state documents, and has adorned the flag in its current form since 1931.

The proposed bill calls for the state’s motto to be placed below the seal in Times New Roman, a widely recognized typeface that happens to have been designed in England.

“A nod to our history, I guess,” said McGough when told of its origins.

The bill has several co-sponsors, including Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Democrat from Manchester.

According to State House records, this is at least the eighth attempt at revising New Hampshire’s state flag since 1989. Seven previous bills also sought to include the phrase “Live Free or Die,” but those measures all failed to gain widespread support. In 2018, the Legislature shot down a proposed study committee to look at ways to modify the flag to include the state motto and an image of the Old Man in the Mountain.

This is not McGough’s first attempt at elevating the motto. In 1999, he was the lead sponsor of a House resolution that urged the U.S. Mint to include the phrase “Live Free or Die” on the state’s commemorative quarter, ultimately placing Stark’s famous saying inside of cash registers, piggy banks and vending machines around the nation.

States including Mississippi, Utah and Minnesota have all redesigned their flags in recent years, retiring outdated or staid imagery with the aim of evoking a sense of local pride. In Maine, residents are expected to vote next year on a proposal to change the Pine Tree State’s flag from its current coat of arms to the widely known and displayed image of a white flag emblazoned with a pine tree and blue star.

Printing words on a flag, as proposed in New Hampshire’s redesign, are generally abhorred by vexillologists, or those who study flag design.

“While I understand the sentiment, this takes the flag in the wrong direction,” said Ted Kaye with the North American Vexillological Association, and the author of “Good Flag, Bad Flag,” when shown New Hampshire’s proposal.

“Words don’t belong on flags,” he said. “They can’t be seen at a distance, they are difficult to sew, and they read backwards on the reverse side of the flag.”

The proposal by McGough, who holds a paramedics license but no formal graphic design experience, has already received a fair amount of debate on the social media platform Reddit’s vexillology forum. A user named nygoth1083 offered praise for the idea, writing “NGL [not gonna lie] I really like this. Something like this shows that change doesn't have to be a total revolution of everything that was previously on the flag.”

McGough said he likes that the proposal is generating interest, from both fans and critics.

“It's a great talker,” he noted.

He said he’s open to amendments, including a complete redesign of the flag, if that’s where the wind blows his fellow lawmakers.

Gov. Chris Sununu, who frequently evokes Stark’s famous phrase, did not respond to a request for comment on the proposed flag redesign.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. He can be reached at tbookman@nhpr.org.