North Carolina’s state motto, “Esse Quam Videri,” means “To Be…Rather than to Seem to Be.” Although uncommon to the modern ear, the phrase has appeared often in the writings of antiquity, most notably in an essay by the Roman philosopher Cicero and then later in a contemporary account of the Roman Republic by the historian Sallust. Referring to Cato the Younger — who was well-known for his tenacity in fighting the entrenched corruption and arrogance of the Roman city-state — Sallust wrote of the great statesman “esse quam videri bonus malebat” (“he preferred to be good rather than to seem so”). Our state adopted these inspiring words as its motto in 1893 and they appear on the Great Seal of North Carolina, pictured here.
Our state’s seal is full of wonderful graphical references as well. The two figures facing one another are Liberty and Plenty. Liberty, standing on the left, is modeled after the Greek goddess Athena. She holds a pole topped with a liberty cap, a traditional symbol of freedom that was widely popularized during both the French and American Revolutions and which first originated as a mark of defiance by escaped Roman slaves. When a liberty cap was raised on a pole during colonial times, it was used both as a statement of protest and surreptitious call to arms by the American rebellion. In her right hand, Liberty is holding North Carolina’s Constitution.
Plenty, seated on the right, holds at her feet a horn — a traditional symbol of abundance and nourishment that dates back to classical antiquity. Commonly found in Western art, the “horn of plenty” (or cornucopia) is overflowing with fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other produce. Plenty’s right arm extends out toward Liberty, holding three heads of grain in her hand.
The background of the seal depicts the diverse geography of North Carolina, spanning the 500 miles from our home here in the western mountains down through the Piedmont and out east to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. You can also see a triple-masted ship in the upper right corner of the seal coming into port, an emblem of our trade and commerce with all four corners of the world.
The two dates on the seal are significant as well. The top one — May 20, 1775 — is the date of The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, the first document of its kind in the Colonies during the American Revolutionary War. The date on the bottom of the seal — April 12, 1776 — commemorates the passage of the Halifax Resolves, a statement that empowered North Carolina’s legislators to join in the larger rebellion against the tyranny of British rule. It was a significant milestone in the history of our nation: two months later, the Second Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence.
And the rest, as they say, is history.