March 1, 2022 | Last updated May 3, 2024

How ‘Equality Before the Law’ became our state motto

By David L. Bristow, Editor

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

In another 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)

Become a Member!

Our members make history happen.

Join Now

You May Also Enjoy

Marker Monday: Spade Ranch

Marker Monday: Spade Ranch

Nebraska’s Japanese American History

Nebraska’s Japanese American History

The Blacksmith Shop

The Blacksmith Shop

Marker Monday: Long Pine – A Railroad Town

Marker Monday: Long Pine – A Railroad Town

Fred Astaire’s Omaha Origins

Fred Astaire’s Omaha Origins

About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Upcoming Events

View our new and upcoming events to see how you can get involved.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.

History Nebraska Education

Learn more about the educational programs provided at our museums, sites, and online.

History Nebraska Programs

Learn more about the programs associated with History Nebraska.

Latest Hall of Fame Inductee

The Nebraska Hall of Fame was established in 1961 to officially recognize prominent Nebraskans.

Listen to our Podcast

Listen to the articles and authors published in the Nebraska History Magazine with our new Nebraska History Podcast!

Nebraska Collections

History Nebraska's mission is to collect, preserve, and open our shared history to all Nebraskans.

Our YouTube Video Collection

Get a closer look at Nebraska's history through your own eyes, with our extensive video collections.

Additional Research Resources

History Nebraska Research and Reference Services help connect you to the material we collect and preserve.

Support History Nebraska
Make a cash donation to help us acquire, preserve, and interpret Nebraska’s history. Gifts to History Nebraska help leave a legacy and may help your taxes, too! Support the work of History Nebraska by donating to the History Nebraska Foundation today.

Volunteers are the heroes of History Nebraska. So much history, so little time! Your work helps us share access to Nebraska’s stories at our museums and sites, the reference room, and online.