How ‘Equality Before the Law’ became our state motto

Did you know that we got our state motto due to a post-Civil War controversy over Black voting rights?

By David L. Bristow, Editor

 

In a previous post we looked at Nebraska’s territorial seal. Here is the more familiar state seal, likewise shown on a painted glass skylight window from the US Capitol.

Instead of the controversial “Popular Sovereignty” territorial motto, our state motto is “Equality Before the Law.”

But this, too, was controversial. Did you know that we got our state motto due to a post-Civil War controversy over Black voting rights?

In its proposed state constitution, the Nebraska legislature restricted voting rights to White men. Most other northern states (and all southern ones) already did the same, but in 1867 Congress rejected Nebraska’s application for statehood until it dropped that restriction.

This infuriated some Nebraska leaders. They knew that the Republican-dominated Congress meant to force the former Confederate states to allow Black men to vote as a condition of re-admission to the Union. Congress was using Nebraska to set a precedent. And everyone knew that most Black men would vote for the party of Lincoln.

Nebraska changed its constitution, but President Andrew Johnson vetoed the statehood bill, arguing that Congress had no right to tell a state how to manage its own elections. Congress overrode the veto and Nebraska became a state on March 1, 1867.

The state legislature soon adopted the state seal and motto, “Equality Before the Law.”  Governor David Butler signed the bill into law on June 14. One day later, the legislature ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, which promises “equal protection of the laws” and makes this requirement binding upon the states. “The vote marked the first time Nebraska had joined her sister states in the constitutional amendment process,” writes historian James Potter. 

Although the motto is partly the result of partisan hardball politics, there was idealism in it as well. Few White Nebraskans embraced social equality, but the notion of legal equality seemed like a proper antidote to the slave system that caused the recent war.

In many ways, even that commitment to legal equality proved short-lived. Following statehood, Black voting rights were not restricted in Nebraska as they were in the South, but Nebraska has a long history of de-facto discrimination in many other areas.

Historian James E. Potter examines the history of the state motto in “‘Equality Before the Law’: Thoughts on the Origin of Nebraska’s State Motto,” Nebraska History 91 (2010): 116-121. (PDF)

Read other stories about Nebraska statehood.

 

(Posted March 1, 2022; updated 3/2/22)

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