“Equality Before the Law,” Nebraska’s state motto, is unique among the fifty states. Only Wyoming’s motto, “Equal Rights,” expresses a similar idea. Both mottos date from the post-Civil War years of the 1860s, and both relate to the granting of political and civil rights previously denied to certain Americans: most black men, free or slave, and women of whatever racial background. The story of the origin of Nebraska’s state motto is told in James E. Potter’s “‘Equality Before the Law’: Thoughts on the Origin of Nebraska’s State Motto,” in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of Nebraska History. The article is part of a special double issue of the magazine featuring new research and discoveries about African American history in Nebraska from statehood in 1867 through the 1950s.
On June 14, 1867, Governor David Butler signed H.R. 41, “An Act to Provide for Procuring a Seal for the State of Nebraska.” Isaac Wiles, a member of the Nebraska House of Representatives from Plattsmouth, Cass County, introduced the act as provided by section thirteen of article three of the 1866 state constitution, which required a “Great Seal of the State of Nebraska” for use by the governor in the transaction of official business. H.R. 41 specified the seal’s design and the motto that was to appear thereon: “Equality Before the Law.”
Shortly before his death on January 20, 1921, Wiles recalled the genesis of the motto and the circumstances under which the phrase “Equality Before the Law” was selected over “Equal Rights for All,” an alternate suggestion. Read an excerpt from Potter’s article on the Nebraska State Historical Society’s website. Single issues of Nebraska History are available from the NSHS Landmark Stores. A subscription to the magazine is a benefit of membership in the Society. — Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor for Research and Publications