The generally-accepted version of how we came to be called “The Show Me State” is that Congressman Willard Vandiver, who represented a district in southeast Missouri, used the phrase in a speech to the Five O’Clock Club in Philadelphia. There are other stories about the use of the phrase but the Vandiver version is the conventional wisdom.
One of the pleasures of digging through historical records is the discovery of things other than the object of the search. While we were going through the papers of Governor Herbert Hadley (1909-1913) while researching the latest book on the Missouri Capitol, we came across this letter from Hadley to George W. Eads at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on February 11, 1911. Eads had asked Hadley a couple of days later about the origin of the expression, “I’m from Missouri, you have to show me.” Hadley didn’t much like the expression although he reconciles himself to it by the end of the letter.
The incident referred to in your letter did not arise from any objection upon my part to this expression. The question was as to whether Missouri should be known as the “Show Me” state, and if not by that name, by what name it should be known. It was suggested by Mr. Curran, the Immigration Commissioner, that a prize might be offered to the one suggesting the best name for the State. In the discussion that followed, I stated in a newspaper interview that I preferred the designation “Pioneer State,” for the reason that the Missourians had been the pioneers in the development of the country west of the Mississippi. I also stated that I had never been particularly enthusiastic over the expression “I am from Missouri you have got to show me,” as it had in it as much of a suggestion of the incredulity of ignorance as of hard-headed inquisitiveness. However, it was apparent from the discussion that there was quite a general satisfaction throughout the State with the expression in that it was supposed to carry with it the suggestion that the Missourian did not propose to have anything “put over” on him.
Viewed from this standpoint, the impression and the designation which has been applied to the State is not uncomplimentary or unsatisfactory. I do not know the origin of the expression. I remember to have read a newspaper story in which it was stated that it originated in one of the Southwestern states by a cow boy who had a habit of using this expression which soon became general in the community and gradually spread throughout the country. But whether this story is true or not, and wherever the expression came from, it is evident that it has come to stay. It stands as a protest against shams, pretense and hypocrisy. It signifies the conservatively aggressive attitude of the people of this State against that which seems to be wrong or presents the appearance of having a “joker” in it.
That’s the definition Governor Hadley felt the motto had in 1911. How much does it still apply today? Might be something to discuss at the coffee shop or the salad bar someday. Or maybe it’s a high school or college debate topic.
Your faithful scribe has thought about Hadley’s interpretation from time to time and isn’t sure which side to take. But the discussion would be fun.
Regardless, “Show Me State” is better than some of the other unofficial state mottos we’ve had. The one we’re glad did NOT make it to our license plate is one from the nineteenth century.
The Puke State.