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Matter of license

ONE of the remarkable qualities of the United States is that our nationalism has not eliminated regionalism or the citizen's attachment to his state. In fact, states compete for people and in that process take pride in the fact that they have a distinctive characteristic or heritage. A good illustration of this tendency is the state license plate. Unlike the European counterpart with its number-letter equation, the US plate touts something. Wisconsin is ``America's Dairyland,'' whereas Rhode Island is the ``Ocean State.'' There is New Jersey, ``the Garden State,'' and big California, ``the Golden State.'' Minnesota has ``10,000 Lakes,'' whereas Michigan has the ``Great Lakes.'' And of course, Louisiana is a ``Sportsman's Paradise.'' As for Arkansas, well, it's a ``Land of Opportunity.''

Important events in state history can be summarized on license plates. Delaware was ``The First State'' to ratify the Constitution, and Connecticut is ``The Constitution State'' because its compromise at the Philadelphia convention broke an impasse between the small and large states. North Carolina boasts that the Wright Brothers made it ``First in Flight,'' and Illinois is the ``Land of Lincoln.''

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States that choose to say nothing talk instead with their hard-to-forget colors, as illustrated by New York and Florida. Or they say something only on very special occasions, which is the case for Maryland, which is still taking note of its 350th anniversary. And for the resident who wants to provide his or her own special license plate message, there is the individualized tag.

To be sure, sometimes the license tag language can even be tied together to form a little story of sorts. For example, if the license plate reader can't make a decision about New Hampshire's choice to ``Live Free or Die,'' he can be certain that whatever he does he'll always ``Have a Friend in Pennsylvania.''

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.


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