By Suzanne Clary
Excelsior. It has been flashed in a blue banner across our TV screens like a Jeopardy Daily Double. It’s a go-to mantra in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily mindful chats. But what does it mean? Why Excelsior? The three syllables are familiar to historians, crossword puzzlers, fans of Judge Judy and the late Stan Lee (who used it as a sign off for his Marvel Universe columns). It’s hidden in plain sight on the royal blue flag over Cuomo’s shoulder at every press conference. But it is still virtually unknown to the general public. Too bad, because this motto, which translates colloquially as “Onward” or “Upward,” is a rallying cry we could use right now.
Two hundred and forty-three years ago this April, New York adopted its first Constitution (which would be a major model for the US Constitution). The state had endured oppressive challenges from war, political infighting, and the smallpox epidemic. John Jay was the captain of this endeavor to articulate the rights of New Yorkers who had persevered. But what’s a new team without the right cheer? The task of choosing a rousing sentiment and compelling image also fell upon Jay and two colleagues – John Sloss Hobart (a member of New York’s first Supreme Court) and Gouverneur Lewis Morris (a fellow anti-slavery advocate and collaborator on the NY Constitution). Jay was 32 years old at the time.
We do not know who held the slate pencil or quill in hand, or what other motivational words were considered. But the final motif was a sun with a human face and “effulgent” rays rising over three mountains and a river, presumably the Hudson, with the motto “Excelsior” engraved underneath. The entire design was finished by December 1777 and formally adopted March 16, 1778, the same week that Jay signed an oath to “execute the office of Chief Justice” of his native state.
The “Great Seal” was used for two decades including Jay’s two terms as governor (1795-1801). Jay, like Cuomo today, was tested to restore calm in New York City during multiple outbreaks of contagion – back then it was yellow fever. The spirit of Excelsior reinforced Jay’s mandates to quarantine marine vessels, build hospitals, anything to halt the spread of the poorly understood disease.
Many have tried to change the seal since then, but it has survived because it is so embedded in the identity of New York State. If you look closely, you can still spy Mr. Sun and the Muhheakantuck, as the Hudson was named by the Lenape, “the river that flows both ways.” In 1880, a group of legislative commissioners reaffirmed its power declaring: “…it has been so long sanctioned in the history of the state, both in prose and poetry, in the minds of all men… no change should be made in it. It impresses upon the mind the sentiment, of a State of abundant resources, progressive enterprise and noble aspirations.”
In the midst of today’s pandemic, Excelsior still sums up what it means to be a New Yorker. While there are shortages of gloves and equipment, there is an abundance of bravery from superhero doctors, retired nurses and healthcare givers. As for enterprise, we are re-purposing breweries to produce hand sanitizer, 3D printing ventilator parts, and racing to create antibody tests and vaccines. Last but not least, our noblest aspiration is to survive, New York Tough, so we can take what we learn from this challenge and share solutions with other states in the future.
To quote Governor Cuomo, “Excelsior. It says it all.” One can quote another Cuomo here too, his father Mario, whose words in 1984 couldn’t be more prescient:
My great hope is that this state will grow together, put aside the divisions between upstate and downstate, between communities, between colors, between sexes, between sexual orientations and that we will remember what the proper direction is for us as a state and for the nation and please understand that this state has known from the beginning what the proper direction is; it’s part of your seal. It was the slogan that helped launch the state.
The word is excelsior…Where are we supposed to go? What direction are we supposed to travel in? E. B. White told us: remember New York is to the nation what the church spire is to the village—the symbol of aspiration and faith, the white plume saying the way is up, not down, not backward, up.”
May we endure this current crisis to protect who and what we love, and live our state motto, Excelsior, to the letter. Maybe throw it into conversation or substitute it for “Hello” or “Goodbye” on your next Zoom call. It’s just one word, but it’s all we need when the going gets tough to lead us, united, onward.