These days Nevada is known as the “Battle Born” state and the Silver State, but back in 1861 when it was a territory its first seal bore the words “Volens et Potens.”
As my Latin is poor, I took a few guesses as to the meaning of the words. Initially, I thought the words might mean “Anything Goes,” “Politicians for Sale,” or “Juice Rules.” But I was wrong.
Volens et Potens translates to “Willing and Able.”
Here it is 147 years since that first territorial motto was written, in all likelihood by St. Mark’s brother Orion Clemens, and I am still bewildered by the words. Surely Orion was a bright fellow. His Latin was certainly better than mine. But I wonder if he wasn’t practicing the third-oldest profession in Nevada: Hucksterism. (The first being prostitution, the second oldest being political corruption.)
Here in the long winter of 2009, with the governor and state Legislature grinding away against the worst economic downturn in 45 years, if there is a question that swirls on the icy wind in Carson City it is whether we as a state are Willing and Able to embrace the complex challenges of the times.
Here’s how Twain himself described the question of whether Nevada was indeed willing and able, (or able and willing as he wrote it) in 1864 in the New York Sunday Mercury:
“... the Great Seal of the State. It had snow-capped mountains in it; and tunnels, and shafts, and pickaxes, and quartz-mills, and pack-trains, and mule-teams. These things were good; what there were of them. And it has railroads in it, and telegraphs, and stars, and suspension-bridges, and other romantic fictions foreign to sand and sage-brush. But the richest of it was the motto. It took them thirty days to decide whether it should be "Volens et Potens" (which they said meant "Able and Willing"), or "The Union Must and Shall be Preserved." Either would have been presumptuous enough, and surpassingly absurd just at present. Because we are not able and willing, thus far, to do a great deal more than locate wild-cat mining-claims and reluctantly sell them to confiding strangers at a ruinous sacrifice -- of conscience. And if it were left to us to preserve the Union, in case the balance of the country failed in the attempt, I seriously believe we couldn't do it. Possibly, we might make it mighty warm for the Confederacy if it came prowling around here, but ultimately we would have to forsake our high trust, and quit preserving the Union. I am confident of it. And I have thought the matter over a good deal, off and on, as we say in Paris. We have an animal here whose surname is the "jackass rabbit" It is three feet long, has legs like a counting-house stool, ears of monstrous length, and no tail to speak of. It is swifter than a greyhound, and as meek and harmless as an infant. I might mention, also, that it is as handsome as most infants: however, it would be foreign to the subject, and I do not know that a remark of that kind would be popular in all circles. Let it pass, then -- I will say nothing about it, though it would be a great comfort to me to do it, if people would consider the source and overlook it. Well, somebody proposed as a substitute for that pictorial Great Seal, a figure of a jackass-rabbit reposing in the shade of his native sage-brush, with the motto "Volens enough, but not so d---d Potens."
After all these years, that jackrabbit remains in the shade.