I knew that the man who said this famous phrase was a Revolutionary War
general, and I assumed that it was his battle cry. (Turns out it wasn't, as
noted below). In Vermont, state Route 9 (between Bennington and Brattleboro) is
called the Molly Stark Trail - because supposedly General John Stark said
during the Battle of Bennington, "We take the Redcoats tonight, or Molly Stark
sleeps a widow". Their marriage survived, so I guess his troops won.
Rediscovering N.H.'s man behind the motto
By John Dyer, Boston Globe Correspondent | September 30, 2007
General John Stark would probably not enjoy all this attention if he were
around to see it.
The Revolutionary War hero who gave New Hampshire its famous motto, "Live free
or die," was not a self-promoter. After winning fame by playing a decisive role
in many of the Revolution's key battles, he eschewed politics, unlike his
commanding officer, George Washington, and retired to his modest Manchester
Yet these days the general's star is on the rise.
After decades of few, if any, writers putting pen to paper on the subject of
the Londonderry-born Stark, three amateur historians have published books on
him this year. Transportation officials are now considering creating a scenic
byway to lure tourists to the general's old stomping grounds.
The interest in Stark reflects trends among American history buffs and the
country in general, observers say. The recent success of biographies of
founding fathers, such as David McCullough's "John Adams," has led some writers
to examine lesser-known figures from that era. "Everybody is trying to figure
out what's going on and looking for heroes again, looking for stories that make
us feel like we are invincible again," said William P. Veillette, executive
director of the New Hampshire Historical Society. "One of our greatest stories
is the Revolution."
Born in 1728, Stark epitomized Yankee values. He was tough, independent, and
tight-lipped, but well spoken, said Ben Rose, a Lincoln, Mass., resident who
wrote "John Stark: Maverick General."
"He emerges as a colorful character," Rose said. "He's much more like George
Patton, who was like 'Damn the torpedoes.' He didn't care about politics. He
was not particularly well liked by the political leadership. Out of all these
guys - Washington, Jefferson - it seems to me he's one of the most significant
guys people don't appreciate."
Taken captive by Native Americans when he was 24, Stark survived a forced march
into the Quebec wilderness before negotiators freed him. Later, he joined
Rogers' Rangers, the predecessor of today's Army Rangers, and fought in the
French and Indian War.
That military experience led him to join the outbreak of the Revolution in
Boston in 1775. Not only was he adept at commanding troops, but his experience
in the rangers had also led him to dislike the British, who treated so-called
provincials like him as second-class citizens, Rose said.
Stark crossed the Delaware River with Washington and led a column of troops to
victory in the Battle of Trenton. Before the fight, when his troops'
enlistments were expiring and the army was threatening to evaporate, he pledged
to sell his farm to pay for his men's salaries. "It's hard to imagine our
politicians putting their futures aside" like that, Rose said.
Soon after that success, in a moment that perhaps reveals his New England
crustiness, Rose said, Stark resigned when the Continental Congress refused to
promote him to the rank of general. But later the New Hampshire Legislature
promoted him to brigadier general, and he was given command over the northern
United States. In that position, he defeated the British at the Battle of
Bennington in Vermont.
In 1809, the veterans who had fought under Stark at Bennington requested his
presence at a reunion. At 81, Stark was too frail to attend. Instead, he wrote
a letter to his former soldiers and offered a toast for the evening: "Live free
Stark's words became the Granite State's motto in 1945. "The context was, here
we just defeated the Nazis and Japan in World War II," said Rose. "People were
saying, 'Let's adopt a state motto whose essence is that there are things worth
dying for.' "
Imprinting Stark's toast on the back of license plates clearly kept the memory
of the man alive. But Rose, Veillette, and others couldn't account for the
coincidence of three books on him appearing in the same year while other honors
were also being planned. "It is wild," said Veillette. "There's no anniversary
In addition to Rose's biography, books on Stark published this year include
Karl Lewis Crannell's "John Stark: Live Free or Die" for young readers, and
Clifton La Bree's "New Hampshire's General John Stark."
The Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission conceived of a John Stark scenic
byway when it was seeking ways to draw tourists to the region, said senior
planner Jack Munn. "We started looking at the history and we realized, wow,
Stark comes up everywhere," he said.
The byway would be a 33-mile loop through Goffstown, Dunbarton, New Boston, and
Weare that would have signs and other amenities to lead travelers to Stark's
farm, a museum holding a cannon from the Battle of Bennington, and other
State officials are reviewing the commission's application, Munn said. If
approved, it would be the first step in the byway becoming a federal scenic
route eligible for extra funding.