Throughout the annals of human history, the Latin phrase “sic semper tyrannis” has been linked to some of the most famous instances of political revolution. The phrase, which translates literally to “thus always to tyrants”, is meant to express a feeling of revolution and the inevitable demise of tyrannical rulers. The phrase is very flexible in usage. It can be a prediction of inevitable future events, an expression of motive, or as a simple statement of fact.
Throughout the ages, “sic semper tyrannis” has been used by political opponents to characterize rulers as tyrannical as well as to express the idea that all tyrants must and will be overthrown. The phrase has a long, interesting, and at some points contradictory history. It’s been used by protestors, assassins, and has even been adopted as a state and military slogan.
The phrase “sic semper tyrannis” resurfaced most recently in the political sphere in 2020, as protestors chanted the words outside of the Kentucky State Capitol at a rally in May. The chants were accompanied by a disturbing demonstration that involved the hanging of an effigy of the state’s governor. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have condemned these actions as reprehensible, and have claimed that the Latin phrase was grotesquely misused in this instance.
With this phrase coming so prominently to the forefront of the political world in recent times, it’s worth looking at the origins of “sic semper tyrannis”, its uses throughout history, and what place it has in the world today.
The Origin of Sic Semper Tyrannis
The phrase “sic semper tyrannis” dates back to the time of the ancient Romans. And while historians do not know exactly when the phrase was first invented, the first historical account of the phrase was during the assassination of Julius Caesar in March of 44 BC.
Some historians claim that Marcus Junius Brutus, a close confidant of Caesar’s and one of the senators present at his assassination, announced the phrase to a crowd after Caesar had been slain. It is a matter of great dispute, however, whether or not Brutus actually said this, or if it was just a fabricated addition to the story for dramatic effect. Plutarch, an ancient Greek historian, claimed that Brutus would not have had a chance to say anything, or if he had that no one would have heard him, because all of the senators fled the scene as soon as Caesar was killed.
Regardless of the historical accuracies of the story, the motives behind Caesar’s assassination clearly demonstrate the meaning of “sic semper tyrannis”. In the years before his death, political actors in Rome believed that Caesar was becoming too powerful, and feared that he was trying to replace the Roman Republic with an Imperial system with himself as king. Concerned that Caesar represented a threat to the democratic system of Roman government, a group of senators congregated and conspired to kill Caesar on the Ides of March.
Rome had experienced many tyrants before the time of Caesar, many of whom were overthrown and killed due to their lusts for power. It was the belief of the Roman people that a tyrant was not only bad for Rome, but that tyrannical power could not and would not survive the test of time. In the story of Caesar’s assassination, “sic semper tyrannis” is used as both an expression of motive and as a proclamation that a prophecy has been fulfilled.
Of course, tyranny did not only exist in the ancient world. This Latin phrase made its way into some of the most pivotal moments of the history of the United States as well.
The Virginia Seal and John Wilkes Booth
In 1776, the year the United States was founded, Virginia adopted “sic semper tyrannis” as a part of its seal. The phrase was meant to capture the revolutionary fervor felt by Virginians after declaring their independence from Great Britain, rulers that they saw as being tyrannical in many ways.
The seal includes the Latin phrase, and also depicts a bare-chested woman standing over the dead body of a tyrant with her foot on his neck. There is a running joke that’s believed to date back to the Civil War that “sic semper tyrannis” actually means “get your foot off my neck”. This image, as well as the Latin phrase, appear on the Virginia state flag as well as on all official documents in the state of Virginia.
While “sic semper tyrannis” has been a part of the United States’s history ever since the country was created, it became especially associated with the events of April 14, 1865, when John Wilkes Booth killed President Abraham Lincoln. On this day, Booth shot Lincoln in the back of the head at the Peterson House across from Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. Booth was a well-known stage actor at the time, but his opposition of Lincoln’s push for voting rights for black Americans led him to conspire against the president.
In a plot to kill Lincoln as well as several other prominent political figures, Lincoln was the only one who was successfully taken out. In the diary of John Wilkes Booth, it is written that Booth cried out “sic semper tyrannis” after killing the president. It is unclear exactly what motivated Booth to use the phrase. It was used in a line in Maryland, My Maryland, a pro-Confederate Civil War song, and Booth was known to sympathize with the Confederate cause. Although President Lincoln is certainly not remembered as a tyrant in history, it’s possible that he may have been viewed as such by Confederate sympathizers in his time.
The phrase “sic semper tyrannis” certainly found a dark place in American history with the assassination of President Lincon, but it has also been linked to some pretty disturbing events from more recent times.
Sic Semper Tyrannis in Modern American History
The first major event when “sic semper tyrannis” seemed to come back into the American public eye was after the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, an act of domestic terrorism carried out by Timothy McVeigh. McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people and injuring 680 more. He claimed that he was exacting revenge against the government for the Waco siege of 1993 as well as their foreign policy in general. He viewed the United States government as a tyranny that should be overthrown, and his act of terrorism as the start of a rebellion.
When McVeigh was arrested on April 19, 1995, the same day as the bombings, he was wearing a t-shirt that depicted Abraham Lincoln and the phrase “sic semper tyrannis”. It seems that McVeigh may have identified with the revolutionary motivations of John Wilkes Booth, and was using the t-shirt both as a way to show support for the actions of Booth as well as justify his own actions.
The most recent instance of the use of this phrase in the United States political sphere was in May of 2020. Protestors outside the Kentucky State Capitol hung an effigy of Governor Andy Beshear from a tree with “‘sic semper tyrannis written nearby”. The protestors gather for what was supposed to be a Patriot Day 2nd Amendment rally, according to a Facebook group, but the gathering quickly grew hostile toward Governor Beshear, who has expressed his support for a “red flag” law that would increase the government’s ability to confiscate guns.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle have condemned the actions of the protestors, saying that the act “reeks of hate and intimidation” and calling it “beyond reprehensible”. Governor Beshear lives with his wife and children just a short walk from the Capitol.
While the phrase “sic semper tyrannis” has its origins in the opposition of tyrannical rule, it seems that people’s definitions of what constitutes tyranny are growing wider and wider. Throughout the history of the United States, this phrase has been used to justify some of the most deplorable acts this country has ever seen, and yet it was fundamental to the very foundation of our country.
“Sic semper tyrannis” is in itself a polarizing phrase. It’s flown proudly on the Virginia state flag, but it’s also been connected with two of the greatest acts of domestic terrorism in American history. The United States of America was born of revolution, and our right as citizens to question our rulers is at the heart of our country’s spirit and runs deeply through our Constitution. However, it is important to understand the essential differences between tyranny and democracy when using the phrase “sic semper tyrannis”. A politician who doesn’t share your beliefs isn’t necessarily a tyrant, and a government that doesn’t do what you want it to isn’t necessarily a tyranny.