Norwich University has had two official mottos: “Essayons” and “I Will Try.” The origins of both mottos and the relationship between the two are commonly misunderstood. “Essayons” is French for “let us try,” and has been the motto of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers since before Norwich was founded in 1819. Conventional wisdom erroneously attributes the phrase “I Will Try” to Colonel Truman Bishop Ransom, our second university president.
Ransom commanded the 9th New England regiment at the Battle of Chapultepec near Mexico City in 1847. As the story goes, Ransom was asked by General Winfield Scott if he could take the fortress at Chapultepec. Supposedly Ransom’s reply was “I will try.” He died trying.
However, available evidence does not support the claim that Ransom said either “I will try” or “essayons” at Chapultepec (and it’s worth noting that he would have been unlikely to rally his troops in the heat of battle in a foreign language). In fact, the “I Will Try” motto was in use at Norwich well before the Mexican War. It appears on an 1839 diploma and an 1844 flag. An 1848 eulogy claims that Ransom’s actual words in that fateful moment were “I pledge my word to you, to lead my regiment into that castle or die.”
So who did coin the Norwich motto? The likely author is Colonel James Miller of New Hampshire, who during the Battle of Lundy’s Lane in the War of 1812 was asked by his commanding general, “Colonel Miller, can you take that battery?” Miller’s response was reportedly “I’ll try, sir.”
This source for the Norwich motto is confirmed by the lyrics to “Hurrah for Old N.U.,” written by Henry Oakes Kent, Class of 1854: “She saw her bright escutcheon / For which her sons had died / Bearing the words that Miller said / “I’LL TRY!” Kent affirmed in an 1899 speech that James Miller was the inspiration for this line, indicating that he was likely the inspiration for the motto itself.
We may never know where the Truman Ransom origin story came from. Evidence clearly indicates that as recently as 1931, the true origin of the phrase was commonly understood. Just 20 years later, though, a 1951 cadet handbook contains the first known written reference to the Chapultepec myth. It was repeated in Darius Guinn’s 1965 update to William Ellis’ university history, and has taken on a life of its own in the last 50 years.
“I Will Try” and “Essayons” have been used alternately and sometimes simultaneously throughout our history. While “I Will Try” appears as early as 1839, “Essayons” surfaces in an 1877 broadside advertisement for the university, and both appeared variously on seals and official publications well into the 20th century.
In 1970, the Board voted to formally adopt “Essayons” as the university’s motto, though diplomas continued to be issued with the “I Will Try” seal. A similar vote in 2003 reverted the official motto to “I Will Try,” which it remains today.
It could be said that Norwich’s two mottos represent two important aspects of the university’s history and culture: “Essayons” connotes a communal spirit and refers to Alden Partridge’s roots as an Army Engineer, while “I Will Try” references a New England spirit of personal fortitude, which Norwich has represented for nearly 200 years.
Adapted from an article by Gary Lord that appeared in the Spring 2004 Norwich Record. Many of the documents referenced here can be accessed in the Norwich University Archives.