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Odd Wisconsin: Origin of Wisconsin's 'Forward' motto

Odd Wisconsin: Origin of Wisconsin's 'Forward' motto

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Last week the Wisconsin Historical Society launched its first major capital campaign, titled "Forward!" This also happens to be the state's official motto (without the exclamation point). We owe it to a chance encounter in New York City between Gov. Nelson Dewey and Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Edward Ryan.

In 1848, when infighting paralyzed the Democratic Party convention, Dewey emerged as a compromise candidate for governor. To nearly everyone's surprise, he won the popular election and became Wisconsin's first chief executive. Dewey's main job from 1848 to 1852 was to get the government up and running, including creating an official state seal with which to emboss legal documents.

Dewey asked University of Wisconsin chancellor John Lathrop to design one. Lathrop delivered a sketch inspired by European heraldry that repeated Wisconsin Territory's Latin motto, "Civilitas Successit Barbaruin" ("Civilization Succeeds Barbarism"). Dewey took this to New York to be cast in metal.

While there, he ran into Milwaukee attorney Edward Ryan. Both were plain-spoken, no-nonsense characters and neither of them liked the fancy Lathrop design with its pretentious Latin maxim. So they sat down on the steps of a Wall Street bank and redrew the state's official seal themselves.

Ryan suggested that it repeat New York's motto, "Excelsior," but Dewey refused. They toyed with "Upward" and "Onward" before settling finally on "Forward." They also inserted a badger onto the seal as one of the new state's symbols. Their impromptu design, somewhat altered, has survived for 150 years.

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