Why is “Semper Vigilans” the motto of San Diego?

Literally translated, Semper Vigilans means “ever vigilant”; figuratively translated, it means pretty much the same thing.

San Diego, California, renowned for its miles of sandy beaches, perpetually sunny weather, and status as the first U.S. city to announce plans for the installation of cyber-controlled street lighting, has adopted this motto.

Semper Vigilans conjures up dystopian images of a surveillance state. It seems to be, and, indeed, is, the sort of phrase that gets adopted by military groups, right-wing gun nuts, and a paranoid Auror, who served during both Wizarding Wars.

It’s antithetical, then, that “sunny” San Diego has adopted this phrase as its motto. Sure, it’s a motto that few know of and even fewer use, but it’s the motto, nonetheless. It calls into question the relatively rare tradition of city mottos. Of the 482 municipalities in California, only 27 have mottos listed on the Wikipedia page for List of Mottos. Granted this statistic should be taken with a grain of salt; the page is clearly incomplete and leaves out one of the best city mottos in California: Redwood City’s “Climate Best by Government Test” (fortunately, that has since been resolved by yours truly).

We can consider this rarity a sign that the institution of the city motto is on its way out the door – if it ever was inside the metaphorical house of the cultural zeitgeist in the first place – and disregard the concept entirely. However, I have wasted too much time uncovering the history of San Diego’s motto and far more pondering the concept of vigilance itself to accept that fact and end here.

The most prominent use of Semper Vigilans is as a motto for the Civilian Air Patrol. Founded during World War II as a way of allowing civilian pilots to aid in the war effort, the C.A.P. is a volunteer organization tasked by Congress to perform emergency services, including search and rescue and disaster relief, and to promote aerospace education.

Sure, the motto is fitting. Vigilance is probably a great asset for a search and rescue missions, but a motto’s primary purpose is outward facing. No member of the C.A.P. needs to recite Semper Vigilans to themselves to remind themselves to keep an eye out for stranded survivors; the motto is for the rest of us. It’s an easy way for a group to communicate their core values and purpose. It’s clear what Semper Vigilans communicates about the C.A.P., but what was it originally meant to say about San Diego?

Official City of San Diego Seal via sandiego.gov

Semper Vigilans became the motto of San Diego piggybacking on the adoption of the official city seal by the Common Council, in 1914 with Resolution Number 17024 in response to a solicitation for new seal designs a year earlier with Resolution Number 12752. The council in 1913 deemed their current motto outdated and set out to search for a new one. Their final decision settled on a submission designed by Carleton Monroe Winslow Sr. and its details are outlined in a mysterious document; it is only referred to as Document Number 74869.

In the opinion of this Common Council, the present seal of the City of San Diego is not in any way symbolic or representative of the municipality, as it exists today

San Diego Common Council, Resolution 12752 (1913)

Semper Vigilans, as a motto, is adopted only by a few groups; it’s not on track to break into the top ten of America’s favorite Latin phrases. But the nature of the groups it has been adopted by is not very surprising. Besides the C.A.P., it’s the motto of the Sinesville, IN and Providence, RI police departments, a firearms training school, an alt-right blog, a guild for the video game Warcraft, an intelligence service branch of a military group in the video game Halo, and a fictional governmental agency tasked with preventing and containing outbreaks; this puts the city of San Diego in bad company: gun nuts and nerds.

Was this the intention the esteemed Carleton Winslow – to make San Diego a city of nerds? Why the architect chose Semper Vigilans as a motto for his seal may remain lost to history forever – or so I thought.

Document Number 74869 is referenced as containing the full description of the city seal and, one would assume, the reasoning behind its design and, more importantly, the rationale for the motto. This document is my holy grail, but I am not the Perceval of this story. That would be Diana Fuentes and Tina Davis of San Diego’s Office of the City Clerk, who retrieved Document Number 74869 from the archives.

As with all quests, however, the true treasure is the friends we made along the way. That is not to say I am now friends with Diana Fuentes and Tina Davis, but that the actual treasure, Document Number 74869, is extremely disappointing.

The motto, ‘Semper Vigilans’ or ‘ever vigilant’, seems to the author of this design to be peculiarly appropriate to the spirit of San Diego.

Carleton Monroe Winslow Sr., Document No. 74869 (1914)

What about the concept of vigilance is “peculiarly appropriate to the spirit of San Diego”?

Vigilance has mixed connotations, at best; a friend who grew up near San Diego told me, when discussing the topic, that she certainly felt there was vigilance against people of color. I’m not here to debate the veracity of the claim, but it’s not hard to imagine how fetishizing vigilance, in a more general sense, can lead to discrimination, paranoia, and vigilantism (wait, there’s something funky going on with the etymology here).

There exists a group that roleplays as the Office of Naval Intelligence of the United Nations Space Command from the aforementioned video game Halo. I had the pleasure of talking to an individual identified only as Serin – an obvious pseudonym derived from Admiral Serin “Oz” Osman, the Commander-in-Chief of the ONI. She makes an argument that vigilance must be seen as a “sister to observation” and decoupled from justice.

It is important that this doesn’t get misconstrued to be any sense of justice or right but more so the understanding and value of information.


The Artemis Defense Institute is a tactical shooting range based in Orange County that makes use of simulators to teach responsible firearm-ownership. In his essay, Semper Vigilans, Steven Lieberman, for the Institute, stokes fears of evil lurking in the shadows and defends the value of vigilance, relaying the story of a vigilant citizen that alerted the police of escaped fugitives. At face value, this anecdote may seem like a fine, albeit isolated, example of the use of vigilance, but the essay is full of loaded language.

He [the vigilant citizen] also noticed behavior of the occupants that was inconsistent with ‘normal’ people.

Steven Lieberman, Semper Vigilans

Lieberman’s Semper Vigilance promotes “othering” in the name of vigilance. I don’t believe that the values Lieberman is promoting is radical – it’s the status quo. As much as I want to believe that Serin can practice vigilance in an objective sense, it’s arrogant to assume that we can overcome these human biases completely. This is not a denunciation of Serin or her ONI roleplaying server; it’s a symptom of a much larger problem of human nature – fearing the “other”.

As Rabih Alameddine writes in his essay Comforting Myths, “Every group needs to have an other. I don’t know how a society can exist without classifying another as the other.” I agree with Alameddine in the broad, intellectual sense, but I fear that this will be received with resigned acceptance. Alameddine highlights a problem that, while cannot be completely solved, must be understood and mitigated. Holding vigilance on a pedestal does not seem to be helpful in accomplishing that.

While it’s certainly interesting to consider vigilance as a purely intellectual topic, it has no bearing on effects of Semper Vigilans being San Diego’s motto, mostly because no one even knows that it is San Diego’s motto.

But as I’ve argued before, the primary purpose of a city motto isn’t to be known by its citizens; it’s to advertise the values that a city upholds. Here we must consider, as Carleton Winslow so vaguely put it, “the spirit of San Diego.”

In Document Number 74869, Carleton Winslow enumerates five points that make San Diego what it is and that his seal aimed to capture: (1) “religious settlement and early Spanish history,” (2) “commerce and industry,” (3) “position by the sea and maritime importance,” (4) “agricultural development,” and (5) “intimate association to the Panama Canal.” These are either extremely esoteric facts about San Diego or concepts so general that they verge on meaninglessness. The original design principles of the official seal of San Diego are outdated.

It’s clear that Carleton Winslow, a proponent of reviving Spanish colonial architecture in his time, revered the past too much and could not design a seal nor a motto to withstand the test of time. 

Today, we still have designers, however. San Diego’s Visual Style Guide doesn’t prescribe shorts and flip flops for San Diego as one might expect, but instead calls for items such as a Sifonn Basic logotype, a minimum of 116 pixels to digitally display the city seal, and a color palette with a “dominant blue” (#0098db).

More importantly, the style guide lists the four values that it claims San Diegans value the most and that act as guiding principles for community engagement through design. They are diversity, togetherness, adventures, and singular geography. Can these explain Semper Vigilans?

I could go into faux-intellectual discussion of each of these themes and waste even more of both of our time, but – long story short – no, they can’t explain Semper Vigilans

Thus far, I have neglected to specifically mention San Diego’s longtime association with the U.S. military, and the Navy, in particular. San Diego hosts the largest naval fleet in the world and has the only major submarine and shipbuilding yards on the West Coast. The Navy employs nearly 40,000 workers in the city, making up nearly 5% of all jobs in the entire county.

None of this matters; I subscribe to Roland Barthe’s central argument in his 1967 essay, The Death of the Author, and though I believe that we can give meaning to the city motto by what the city has become in the time since, it cannot answer our original question of why. There is no satisfying reason as to why Semper Vigilans is San Diego’s motto.

In my, what some may call, obsession, I’ve spoken with many people who either grew up in San Diego or have lived in San Diego for a few years and no one knows that Semper Vigilans is San Diego’s motto. As a friend put it after learning the fact, “San Diego is vigilant so you don’t have to be.” I disagree on the premise that a city is nothing more than its citizens, but, more to the point, my friend isn’t vigilant – at least to the fact that Semper Vigilans is San Diego’s motto.

Our original question, now fully answered, begets another. The motto’s origins, inextricable from that of the seal, also calls into question the status of Semper Vigilans as the motto of San Diego in the first place. Sure, the folks over at city hall certainly think it’s the city motto, listing it as such on Fast Facts About the City of San Diego.

The Common Council, or City Council as its currently known, was granted power to “provide a common seal” for San Diego through the city’s first charter, enacted in 1889. Nowhere in the original hundred-page charter, however, is the word “motto” mentioned (though, granted, that may be due to the current limitations of optical character recognition technology). The original version of the current City Charter, adopted in 1931, and through all of its iterations to the current day version do not contain the word either.

In 131 years that the City Council has existed, it has never had the power to force a motto onto the citizens of America’s Finest City. The council, alongside Carleton Winslow, in 1914 overstepped their bounds and unbalanced power within the municipal government by implementing a motto at all.

There is no good reason as to why Semper Vigilans has become San Diego’s motto. In fact, it might not even be San Diego’s motto at all.

One thought on “Why is “Semper Vigilans” the motto of San Diego?

  1. Pingback: A Directory of Daves | Quoc Thoughts

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