Union’s age-old motto gets a modern makeover

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In a move that supporters believe is long overdue, the College will modify its centuries-old motto to add the French word for “sisters.”

Under the change, which was recently approved by the Board of Trustees, Union’s motto now reads Sous les lois de Minerve nous devenons tous frères et sœurs (“Under the laws of Minerva, we all become brothers and sisters”).

This replaces the original French motto, Sous les lois de Minerve nous devenons tous frères (“Under the laws of Minerva we all become brothers"), which was adopted shortly after Union’s founding in 1795.

“We respect the tradition of the words carefully chosen by our original trustees, but it’s important that those words now make explicitly clear that Union is a place of inclusion and a shared intellectual mission for all,” said President Stephen C. Ainlay.

Union began admitting women in 1970. According to Wayne Somers ’61, editor of the Encyclopedia of Union College History, there were unsuccessful efforts by students and faculty in 1976, 1991 and 1998 to alter the motto because of complaints that it excludes women.

The latest push was led by Evan Leibovitz '15 and Peter Durkin ’16. The two brought a proposal before Student Forum, which voted unanimously last January to support the change. The Alumni Council and the Faculty Executive Committee also supported the proposal.

“The change was needed to recognize the importance and the many contributions of women since the College became a coeducational institution,” said Durkin, a student trustee. “The changes maintain the historical idea of Union as a nondenominational institution and the development of lifetime friendships through brotherhood and sisterhood, while showing our evolution from an all-male institution.’

It may be some time before the modified version appears on stationery, campus podiums and other places adorned by the College seal.

But the origins of the motto remain one of the College’s enduring mysteries.

Not long after the school’s founding, a committee of four trustees came up with the unique motto that would form part of the school’s official seal.

The choice of using the head of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, for the seal was not a surprise. She was a central symbol of the time, adorning the masthead of Columbia, New York City’s leading newspaper, and other prominent seals. She also stood behind the speaker’s platform in Congress in the form of a five-ton bronze sculpture.

But while other colleges and universities took their mottos from the Latin, Greek or Hebrew (“Veritas” – “Truth” proclaimed Harvard on the first American college seal), Union turned to the French.

Why the French? The founders of the College had made a sharp break with the classical tradition prevalent in American higher education by substituting French for Greek in entrance requirements and in the curriculum. But despite exhaustive research by a number of people connected to the College, no specific source for the motto has been discovered.

Union historian Codman Hislop ’31 speculated that the members of the seal committee may have been responsible for the motto.

The four locals, according to Hislop, “were all sophisticated Albanians then rubbing shoulders constantly with the many French refugees who visited the capital. Our French motto could have turned up at the dinner table of any one of the trustees living in 1795 in a climate heavy with French Republican thought.”

Samuel Fortenbaugh Jr. ’23, a former chair of the Board of Trustees and collector of arcane lore about Union’s history, tried to solve the mystery, both in an article he wrote for the Union Symposium in 1969 (“Adventures in the Seal Trade”) and in his 1978 book, “In Order to Form a More Perfect Union.”

In a chapter titled “The Question of a Seal – Telemachus (?),” Fortenbaugh methodically dissects a cadre of likely suspects behind the French words, from the four committee trustees to the silversmith company that designed the seal to Union’s first president, John Blair Smith.

“Any one of them may have been the finder or author – or maybe there was another who found the quotation in some as yet undiscovered source,” Fortenbaugh wrote. “There the matter must rest.”