The Motto Controversy

The use of the current Stanford University motto, “Die Luft der Freiheit weht” (often translated as “the winds of freedom blow”), began with Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan, who wrote that he first encountered the phrase in the writings of Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523), the German humanist and revolutionary who defended Martin Luther and criticized the abuses of the Catholic Church in the early years of the Protestant Reformation.

While the exact phrase “Die Luft der Freiheit weht” does not appear in von Hutten’s original Latin writings (the relevant passage reads “videtis illam spirare libertatis auram,”), President Jordan presumably encountered it in an 1858 German-language biography of von Hutten and was struck by its suitability. An alternate translation of the phrase, as published in Jordan's 1910 volume on Ulrich von Hutten, reads “the breath of liberty is stirring.”

Discussion on the adoption of a motto for the young university became heated during talks for the development of the first seal. President Jordan’s suggestion to Stanford's Board of Trustees to use his preferred motto on the seal met with opposition from other members of the university. George E. Crothers, the Secretary of the Board of Trustees, favored the motto “Truth and Service,” which he felt best summarized the goals of the university.

Stanford University, Board of Trustees, meeting records, 1898-2015 (SC1010)

Ultimately rejected, this 1908 sketch of the Board of Trustees seal depicts El Palo Alto bordered by a torch and an ax, with the motto preferred by Crothers, “Truth and Service.”

Crothers objected to the German motto “Die Luft der Freiheit weht,” since it would imply a degree of freedom not traditionally found in American universities, “both on the part of the student and the professor.” The Board of Trustees eventually decided to adopt the motto “Semper virens” (or “ever flourishing”) for their seal—particularly appropriate since Seqouia sempervirens is the scientific name for the California coastal redwood.

Shortly after, Jordan adopted his preferred motto on the new seal for the President’s Office. The controversy did not end there; during WWI, the German motto proved very unpopular, and the university disavowed its use as the “official motto.” Despite these setbacks, eventually the motto “Die Luft der Freiheit weht” was officially adopted for use on the university-wide seal, and it continues to appear on the university-wide seal today.

Stanford University, Board of Trustees, meeting records, 1898-2015 (SC1010)

“Die Luft der Freiheit weht” was adopted by President Jordan for use on the seal of the President’s Office in the early 20th century. However, it was only one of the suggestions considered for the new university’s motto; other options included Latin, English and even Greek phrases focusing mainly on the practical purpose of Stanford University. President Jordan shared many ideas for mottos with trustee George Crothers in this letter dated from October 17, 1907.

Former Stanford President Gerhard Casper discussed the origin of the motto during his inaugural address, on October 2, 1992. View his address below, or read the transcript of his speech.