I was attending a graduation at Norwich University in Vermont a while back and the school’s seal caught my eye, especially the engraved motto: “I Will Try.”  How refreshing.

Many school seals include grandiose often-Latin mottos about truth and light and freedom and God, in contrast to the simplicity of the one at Norwich, the oldest private military college in the United States, with about 2,300 cadets, civilian residents and commuters as well as about 1,200 online graduate students. “I Will Try” is a statement of principle the school wants its students to embrace, one that validates effort and not simply result.

Another great motto comes from Ohio State University. In Latin it’s “Disciplina in civitatem”; in English it’s “Education for citizenship.” Not “education for a job with a high salary.” The motto distinctly states the purpose of education in this American democracy: to educate America’s young people to have the knowledge and thinking skills to be active citizens.

Contrast those mottos — as shown on the schools’ shields — with the common English translation:

Harvard University: “Veritas” — “Verity” or “truth”

Stanford University: “Die Luft der Freiheit weht” — “The wind of freedom blows”

University of Texas at Austin: “What starts here changes the world”

University of Miami: “Magna est veritas” — “Truth is mighty”

Northwestern University: Quaecumque sunt vera “Whatsoever things are true”

UCLA: “Fiat lux” “Let there be light.”

University of Vermont: “Studiis et Rebus Honestis” — “Through studies and upright affairs”

University of Kansas: “Videbo visionem hanc magnam quare non comburatur rubus” — “I will see this great sight, how the bush does not burn.” (from Exodus)

Here, from the Norwich website, is the story of how the school came to have “I Will Try” as its motto:

By Diana Weggler, adapted from research conducted by Dr. Gary Lord, Dana Professor of History
Generations of Norwich Rooks have been taught that the words, “I will try” were first uttered in 1847 by Colonel Truman B. Ransom in the heat of battle during the Mexican War. According to early accounts, the former Norwich University president, ordered by General Winfield Scott to storm and take the fort at Chapultepec, replied, “I will try.” Norwich lore further tells us that, at the very moment of victory, Ransom was killed by a musket ball. (Norwich University Handbook 1951-52 and History of Norwich University Vol. IV, p.286).
New research comes to light
A most heroic and inspiring tale, but not entirely accurate. Gary Lord, Dana Professor of History, acting on a directive from President Richard W. Schneider, has set the record straight by bringing to light relevant historical information that had been heretofore lost to memory or clouded in myth, or both. According to Lord’s research, the motto “I will try” was already firmly established at Norwich at least a decade before the famous battle of Chapultepec, as evidenced by its appearance on University diplomas of the 1830s. Additional proof that the motto had been adopted by the University prior to Ransom’s last stand can be found in the words, “I’ll try,” emblazoned on a Norwich flag from 1844. (Now in the Norwich Museum.)
So the question then becomes, what exactly did transpire at Chepultepec, and further, if Ransom did not coin the legendary motto during the Mexican War, then who did, and when?
The answer to the first part of the question — what exactly did transpire at Chepultepec? — can be found in a eulogy memorializing Ransom delivered by Frederick W. Hopkins, Adjutant General of Vermont, in 1848.
And now, Chepultepec lies before us — a strongly fortified post, high up on an abrupt and steep hill, and which commanded the City of Mexico, and its passes. “It must be taken” says the Commander in Chief. “It shall be taken,” echoed the Ninth [Ransom’s regiment], and to General Pierce’s [Franklin Pierce, later a U.S president and a Norwich trustee from 1841-1859] brigade was assigned the advance, and to the Ninth, the coveted privilege of leading in the attack. On this occasion, fired with gratitude and zeal, the ardent Ransom grasped the hand of his brave General and uttered the prophetic words, “I pledge my word to you, to lead my regiment into that castle or die” (Discourses at Norwich, Vermont, during the Obsequies of Truman Bishop Ransom 1848, reprinted by the Norwich Alumni Association in 1905).
Lord notes that Hopkins makes no reference to either “I will try” or “essayons.”
War of 1812 and Colonel James Miller
The answer to the second part of the question, “who did coin the University motto, and when?” can be found in the first volume of Ellis’ History of Norwich University (1912). According to a speech delivered at a ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone of Dewey Hall in October 1899, the origins of the words “I will try” can be traced to the War of 1812.
In that speech, Colonel Henry Oakes Kent (a graduate of the Norwich Class of 1854 and Trustee from 1854-1909) recounts:
It was Col. James Miller of New Hampshire who, at Chippewa, made the historic response to the doubting question of the commanding general, ‘Colonel Miller can you take that battery?’ ‘I’ll try,’ a promise that was redeemed in victory and has since been borne upon our escutcheon and seal (Ellis, History of Norwich University, Vol. I, p. 209).
Although Kent did not have all his facts quite right (history tells us, rather, that it was General Winfield Scott who led a bayonet charge that broke the enemy line at Chippewa), it was indeed Miller’s heroics that served as the source of the Norwich motto:*
In July 1814, at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane on the Canadian banks of the Niagara River, near Niagara, New York, Miller, then commander of the 21st Infantry Regiment, was commanded by General Jacob Jennings Brown to storm a battery of seven British cannons positioned on a hilltop. Miller’s response to his commanding officer, “I’ll try, sir,” became forever linked with his name. A stirring account of Miller’s successful nighttime assault can be found at www.nhparks.state.nh.us/ParksPages/Miller/MillerGenrl.html. Miller’s actions gained him national fame and earned him a promotion to brigadier general. His portrait, (also available on the website), hangs in a place of honor on the first floor of the New Hampshire Statehouse.
Dr. Lord’s research clears up not only the confusion surrounding the elusive origins of the motto “I will try,” but also, (and this may be of perhaps greater relevance to Norwich faithful), explains its subsequent connection to the (inaccurate) translation, essayons, which came into popular use during the 1870s and was formally instated by the Board of Trustees one hundred years later.
According to Lord’s research, the first known use of essayons in Norwich University publications and documents was in a broadside advertisement for the University dating back to 1877. Essayons, or “Let us try,” was the motto of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and would have been commonly recognized at the time by anyone interested in military affairs. It appeared again in a University seal reprinted in a “circular” or catalogue from 1879, a practice that continued until 1886, when the motto reverted to “I will try.” The word essayons also appeared on Norwich University diplomas (though not in the seal) from 1881 until as recently as 1940, when the practice was dropped.
Then, in 1970, Professor Sidney Morse, in an article published in the Norwich University Record (Summer, 1970), made the bold suggestion that Ransom rallied his men with the cry, “Essayons! at the battle of Chepultapec.
Morse’s newly crafted version of an already confused historical account seems to have captured the sentiment of the then Board of Trustees, who subsequently voted unanimously to adopt “Essayons” as the official University motto.
Back to the future
At their fall meeting in October 2003, the Board of Trustees approved the designation of “I Will Try!” as the official motto of the University, supplanting the previously accepted “Essayons!”
Their decision, which was based on Lord’s findings, reinstates the original motto, one that has been in continuous use since the 1830s, and which more honestly reflects Norwich University history and tradition.