For Which It Stands: An Anecdotal Biography of the American Flagby Michael Corcoran, Mike Corcoran
Our national anthem celebrates it. Patriots wave it. Politicians of all kinds try to wrap themselves in it. It is saluted at baseball games, in parades, and on the most solemn of commemorative occasions. It was salvaged in the first hours following the dreadful events of September 11, and it stands outstretched just above the surface of the moon.
Our national anthem celebrates it. Patriots wave it. Politicians of all kinds try to wrap themselves in it. It is saluted at baseball games, in parades, and on the most solemn of commemorative occasions. It was salvaged in the first hours following the dreadful events of September 11, and it stands outstretched just above the surface of the moon.
It is, of course, the American flag, and there are few symbols as potent. With all the reverence and sacrifice and emotion it inspires, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that it is ultimately just a symbol. Why is it so powerful? Why does a piece of cloth resonate so loudly for so many? Why a flag, and why this flag, these stripes, those stars?
In For Which It Stands, his timely, comprehensive, and engaging "biography" of the American flag, Michael Corcoran examines those questions and more as he explores the evolution of our most cherished emblem, from the days preceding the Revolution through the nationwide resurgence of patriotism in the aftermath of September 11. Corcoran traces the entire life of the colors, holding forth on a number of engrossing topics, including:
The fluid design of the flag, the subject of much contentious debate on the part of the founding fathers, and until fairly recently, not officially codified.
The various alternative flags ingrained in the national consciousness, among them the defiant, rattlesnake-adorned "Don't Tread on Me" banner and the "Stars and Bars" of the Confederacy.
The role of the colors in war, from how to start a fight with England (raising a flag declaring indepen-dence, high enough for the British Army in Boston to see it, ought to do the trick) to the question of whether to remove from the banner the stars emblematic of the states that seceded during the Civil War, to the giddy ubiquity of the flag following World War II.
Corcoran addresses all these matters and more (including the particularly vexing questions raised by flag burning: Is it such an affront that it warrants a constitutional amendment outlawing that method of protest, or is it perhaps the single most potent expression of our right to free speech, and therefore profoundly American?) as he delves into the wind-tangled history of "Old Glory," an entertaining jumble of much-loved myth and obscure facts. Thoughtful, droll, and fast-paced, For Which It Stands definitively tells the story of America's most recognizable icon, from Bunker Hill to Iwo Jima to Tranquillity Base -- and beyond.
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Read an Excerpt
At the end of 1776, the members of the Continental Congress hotfooted it from Philadelphia to Baltimore, compelled to do so by the uncomfortable proximity of the British armies in New Jersey under General Lord Charles Cornwallis. Six months after they had declared the United States a sovereign nation, there was no shortage of worries for the itinerant Congress. Of primary concern was the ongoing fight to establish independence; most alarming was the dire situation of George Washington's army, which numbered just a few thousand poorly supplied men, many of whom were reaching the end of their one-year enlistment. There was also the matter of devising a set of laws for the new country, a debate begun shortly after the issuing of the Declaration of Independence. By the time the Congress felt safe enough to move back to Philadelphia in March 1777, the Articles of Confederation were still not ratified, and there was another situation that required urgent attention: namely, the attempt to secure foreign aid so that the war could be continued.
On June 14, 1777, in the midst of much more pressing business, the Marine Committee of the Congress scratched out a single sentence that led to the establishment of what would eventually become the world's most recognized symbol: "Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation."
The resolution was passed without a shred of romance; angels did not appear over Philadelphia blowing trumpets or singing, nor did Mel Gibson charge into battle a few weeks later carrying the new banner, cutting down the dastardly Redcoats with his avenging sword. Rather, the resolution establishing the flag was passed in the ordinary course of business by the Congress, a single sentence squeezed in among pages of resolutions. Directly preceding the flag resolution came this one: "Resolved, That the marine committee be empowered to give such directions respecting the continental ships of war in the river Delaware as they think proper in case the enemy succeed in their attempts on the said river." Immediately after the flag resolution, the Congress noted that "The council of the state of Massachusetts bay having represented by letter to the president of the Congress that Capt. John Roach sometime since appointed to command the continental ship of war the Ranger is a person of doubtful character and ought not to be entrusted with such a command." Faced with this personnel problem, the Congress resolved to replace Roach with John Paul Jones. (In later years, Jones was fond of telling anyone who would listen that he and the flag were inextricably linked, having been decreed on the same day, as it were.)
The creation of a new national flag had been on the minds of the members of Congress for some time. Marine-supply merchants in Philadelphia had been nagging the governing body about a new flag, so that they could make and sell it. Commanders of both land and naval forces inquired in letters to headquarters about which flag they should use. The need for a standardized flag was obvious, particularly because of the crucial communication and identification purposes banners served in eighteenth century warfare, but not a priority when the survival of the infant republic was in serious jeopardy.
One reason that the Congress didn't act with greater urgency in describing and approving a national flag was that there already was an American flag -- they just hadn't signed off on it. Since January 2, 1776, a banner known as the Continental Colors had been the de facto flag of the nation. The Continental Colors had thirteen stripes; in some cases, the stripes were red and white, but there were often blue stripes, as well. The upper-left corner of the flag (the part the Congress referred to as the "blue field," but primarily known as the canton) featured the original British Union Jack, which differed slightly from its modern incarnation. It was this flag that was raised over Prospect Hill, about a mile from Harvard Square in current-day Somerville, Massachusetts, on January 2, 1776, so that the British army in Boston could see it. The Continental Colors was the national flag on July 4, 1776, the day independence was declared. Even some other nations recognized the Continental Colors as the flag of the United States; when the American ship Andrea Doria made her way into the Caribbean harbor of St. Eustatius on November 16, 1776, she was flying the Continental Colors. The Andrea Doria fired a salute to the Dutch fort on the coast of the island, and the Dutch gunners returned the favor in kind. This was the first recorded acknowledgment of American independence and the new nation's flag.
Still, there was something not quite right about the Continental Colors, and that something was plain to see: the canton consisting of the Union Jack. Its inclusion in the flag's design reflected an early hope that the hostilities between the colonies and Great Britain would not lead to a permanent schism, but its presence was jarring and contradictory as the former colony fought to wrest its independence from the British.
On June 3, 1777, a request was presented to the Congress by a Native American named Thomas Green. In accordance with what by then had become established custom, Green sought the flag of the new nation to present to his tribe. Both the British and the French had established this custom by presenting, among other things, silver, wristbands, money, and flags to various tribes in an attempt to be received favorably by the natives. Green's request, combined with those of the merchants and the military, prompted the Congress to realize the time had come to do something about the flag; after all, having native allies could prove useful in the conduct of the war. At the time of Green's request, any hope of avoiding a total break with the British had long since vanished. Aware of the obvious relationship between the Continental Colors and the Union Jack, the Congress realized that presenting the flag then in use would be a muddled statement of independence. Thus, the commitment to the Stars and Stripes was made on June 14, 1777.
Content to have removed the issue from its to-do list, the Congress turned back to the business at hand, unaware that they had started a love affair between a people and a flag that would have no equal.
"I don't know of the first flag in human civilization," says Whitney Smith, Ph.D., and if Smith doesn't know of it, no one does. Smith, 62, is the world's most ardent devotee of vexillology, the study of flags. In fact, Smith coined the term as a 16-year-old high-school student. "I was doing work on the history of flags," says Smith, "and there wasn't any word for it. If you were into coats of arms, you used the word heraldry. If you were into coins, it was numismatics. So, I used my schoolboy Latin to create the word vexillology." The Latin word for flag is vexillum, and Smith added the Greek ending that indicates scholarly study (-ology) to form his new word. By 1965, the word began appearing in dictionaries, and it is now a standard entry in both Webster's and the Oxford English Dictionary.
In the years since he invented his word, Smith has graduated magna cum laude from Harvard (1961); founded (1961) and still edits the bimonthly The Flag Bulletin; founded (1961) and still directs The Flag Research Center in Winchester, Massachusetts; received a master's degree (1962) and a doctorate (1968) from Boston University; founded the International Federation of Vexillological Associations (1969), which bestowed upon him laureate honors in 1991; authored 22 books on flags and political symbolism, of which more than 300,000 copies have been sold; won the Whitney Award, named after him, from the North American Vexillological Association; and, for good measure, designed the national flag of Guyana while still a student at Harvard. Smith's consultant work over the years has included such clients as the United Nations, the U.S. Department of Defense, NASA, the European Community, IBM, the Olympic Games, the Smithsonian Institution, and the British Museum, among hundreds of others.
Based on his lifelong obsession with flags it would be an easy assumption that Smith is a nerd of the first order. Not so. Even though he jokes that "I didn't have many friends as a kid," he is warm, gracious, and has a brilliant sense of humor. Sitting in his office in Winchester, Smith's effervescence and wit are evident as he talks about flags. "Flags are clearly related to other kinds of symbols," he says. "The Ice Man found in the Alps between Austria and Italy was five thousand years old, and he had tattoos. The Picts in Scotland got their name from the Latin word meaning with designs. The name was given to them because they painted their bodies. In both cases, we're looking at a form of body language. These people are saying, 'I'm part of this certain group; possibly they were just saying, 'I am me,' just like people who get tattooed today. It's more likely a case of the former than the latter. That idea of expressing yourself, for whatever reason -- to be identifiable in battle; to announce you're part of a community; joy, anger, or sorrow -- that's what the development of flags is rooted in. You can see it today in some societies. In third-world countries, where flags aren't readily available, people will take branches and wave them in moments of celebration or victory. Recently, I've started thinking about what primate behavior may have lent itself to the invention of flags -- it might be as simple as having something that's an extension of the arm to go along with the beating of the breast and the baring of teeth and so forth to say, 'This is my territory.'
"The process," continues Smith, "of using something to reinforce or take the place of primate display behavior is very ancient. Often, the things didn't take the form of flags as we know them today, but the connection is unmistakable. A staff with an object at the top served the same purpose as a flag. That object might have been carved wood or leather. The Aztecs used feathers, the Mongolians the tail of a tiger. There is in existence today a metal flag with carvings on it from ancient Persia. It's on a staff with an eagle atop it. We don't know much about its antecedents or its use, but it's frighteningly similar to a modern flag. What we do know is that it's 50 centuries old -- that's 5,000 years.
"Flags are a serious part of human social organization. In predynastic Egypt, flags flew in front of the temples -- there are images of that -- and the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic that represented the gods was a flag. The association is clear: If you wanted to find a god, you went to the temple. If you wanted to find the temple, you looked for the flag."
The use of flags as representations of gods and God caught on; when flags eventually came to be made of cloth, and the wind caught a flag just so, it wasn't too drastic a leap for a person to believe a flag was the living symbol of a deity or a particular saint or a king (many of whom fancied they had a direct connection with or were themselves divine). The feeling that God or king was personally on hand served to comfort a man, particularly when he stood poised to do battle in the name of said God or king, knowing full well he was just minutes away from almost certain death.
Flags as the cloth banners we know today "almost certainly evolved as part of ancient Chinese sericulture," says Smith. "The silk was light and durable, and it could be painted or embroidered." The Chinese were making silk for nearly 3,000 years before the birth of Christ, but it wasn't until the second century B.C. that traders ambled west along the 4,000-mile Silk Road that led them to the markets of the eastern Mediterranean. From that point, the silk found its way to Rome, and the Romans, busy conquering the western world at the time, may have used silk (or other material) to fashion the vexilla carried by the tramping legions. These were usually red, and hung by the top edge from a crosspiece crowning a staff, a method of display perhaps borrowed from the ancient Greeks. The staffs from which the vexilla hung were adorned at the top, initially with either a wolf, minotaur, wild boar, horse, or eagle, depending on the military division carrying it; around 100 B.C. the eagle became the primary staff-topping of the legions. In the field, the vexilla hung before the general's tent and were used to give the signal to make ready for battle. The Romans used a variety of signaling methods once the collision of forces began: vocalia were verbal orders; semivocalia were orders given by trumpets; muta were signals that made use of the movement of the vexilla. The Romans were fond of their eagles and vexilla; in some cases, Legion commanders ordered the eagles flung forward into the mass of the enemy in order to inspire their troops. The logic was simple: That eagle is ours, now go and get it.
For some unknown reason, the transition from top-hanging vexilla to laterally attached flags that rippled in the wind took eons. Writing in his 1922 book British Flags, W. G. Perrin observes: "It is difficult to understand why an invention so apparently simple as the laterally-attached flag should have been so late in making its appearance in Europe (except in the form of small ribbonlike streamers), but the fact remains that it is not until the close of the eighth century a.d. that we meet with evidence of its existence." Perrin goes on to describe a mosaic ordered by Pope Leo III around the year 800. In the mosaic, Christ is handing the keys of the church to Pope Sylvester and a flag to Emperor Constantine; to the left of Christ, St. Peter is offering a cape to Leo (apparently not among the more modest popes) and a flag to Charlemagne, who was crowned emperor of Western Europe on Christmas Day that same year. Both flags in the mosaic are laterally attached to staffs.
Loosely speaking, the seminal moment in the creation of the American flag occurred a few hundred years after laterally flying flags surfaced in Europe. The impetus was the conquering of Jerusalem by the Seljuk Turks in the eleventh century. The Turks did not welcome Christian pilgrims with open arms, which didn't sit well with many Christians in Europe, not the least of whom was Pope Urban II, who believed the Holy Land should be reclaimed from the infidels. Urban II gave his marching orders for the Crusades in 1095, declaring: "God wills it. Christ Himself will be your leader when you fight for Jerusalem." The crusaders packed up their axes, arrows, and swords and traipsed back and forth across the continent for the next 200 years or so.
According to Perrin, something the crusaders most assuredly did not do, despite their alliance under the command of Christ Himself, was march under anything resembling national flags. "If we expect to find traces of any national or popular flags among the early banners carried by the crusaders we shall be disappointed. The kings, nobles, and military orders...had each their own special banner, but the common people had none, and it was not until the year 1188, one hundred years after the first crusaders had entered Syria, that a means was provided for distinguishing the rank and file of different nationalities by a variation in the color of the crosses upon their shoulders. From the beginning, the cross set upon the clothing of rich and poor alike had been the outward symbol of a common religion...but the flags which led the armies into action and crowned the towers of captured castles or the gates of towns were those of individual leaders."
The crosses sewn to the clothing of the crusaders to differentiate nationality had an impact on later flags. "The Scots used a white diagonal cross," says Smith. "The English used a red cross on white; a white cross on blue was France, a red diagonal on white was Spain, and so forth. They [color-coded crosses] certainly weren't used in the home countries to any great extent. It cannot really be said that these were national symbols and considered as such at the time. But the use of the crosses was important in the process. They were antecedents. The British Union Jack is based on three national crosses, two of which [England and Scotland] are very old." Thousands would die wearing them, but the identifying crosses worn by the Europeans survived the colossal mess of the Crusades.
The stated goal of the Crusades, the liberation of the Holy Land, was not achieved in the end. The motivation of the Crusaders was not always altruistic, and often the traveling warriors lost their bearings and ended up fighting for political purposes or plain old greed. Jerusalem was taken on several occasions, only to be lost again. The first Christian recapturing of the city took place in 1099; however, a key battle along the way took place at Antioch in late 1098. At Antioch, "the city of great towers," the crusaders besieged the Turks for six months. Both sides suffered miserably, and in the final battle there was a noteworthy event: Legend has it that the weary crusaders were moved to victory by the presence of St. George. Shocking indeed, since the good saint had been dead since the third century, but in his battlefield debut he carried the day.
Having earned his stripes at Antioch, St. George was once again dispatched to the front by Christ Himself slightly more than three hundred years later. George's big day came on October 25, 1415, at Agincourt, France. For about sixty-five years prior to that day, St. George was considered the protector of the English crown, which at Agincourt was worn by Henry V. Henry's army of 6,000 or so was on the move toward Calais so their leader could claim the French crown (nothing like the quest for matching crowns to get a good dustup started), and conservative estimates put the number of Frenchmen who met them along the way at 20,000, with some suggestion that there were six times that number. The two forces commenced the battle; the fifteenth-century Chronicle of England describes the scene:
And that day the Frenche men syhe Seint George in the eyre ouer the hoste of the Englisshe men, fyghtyng ayenst the Frenche men; and therfor they worship & holde of Seint George, in Engelond, more than in many other londe...and thus Almyhti God & Seint George brought oure enemyes to grounde, & yaf us the victory that day.
The text does not say whether Seint George stayed for refreshments after the fyghtyng ended; but the Englisshe men and the Frenche men were certain that they had seen him. (At least according to the legend as it evolved over time; latter-day scholars have suggested that the Chronicle of England got its facts mixed up interpreting some poems about Agincourt, and that no one who was actually there ever claimed to have seen St. George. Rather, the poems upon which Chronicle based its account indicated the king simply invoked the name of St. George prior to the fight. The legend makes for a much better story, which is why it's legendary.) The following January, the Archbishop of Canterbury proclaimed that the feast day of St. George be considered second in importance only to Christmas and Easter. Henceforth, said the archbishop, George was "the special protector and patron of the English nation." By the end of the 1400s, the red cross of the crusaders had been adopted as the symbol of St. George, and was put to considerable use by various kings. In 1495, Parliament outlawed all battle cries except those which invoked the king and St. George.
Three years before the Act of Parliament regulating English battle cries, Cristoforo Colombo, an Italian explorer leading a small fleet of Spanish vessels searching for a short cut to the Far East, stumbled upon the island of St. Salvador. The Age of Exploration was open for business, and St. George's Cross was on the move to the New World.
In his definitive Origin and History of the American Flag (1887), George Henry Preble set the mood in the king of England's court following the voyage of Columbus: "There was great talk of the undertaking of Columbus, which was affirmed to be a thing more divine than human, and his fame and report increased in the hearts of some of the king's subjects a great flame of desire to attempt something alike notable." The king at the time was Henry VII, mostly remembered for his eventual victory in the Wars of the Roses and the establishment of the Star Chamber. From an American perspective, however, his primary contribution to the future nation was his deep pockets. In response to the "flame of desire" emanating from his subjects. Henry issued, on March 5, 1496, a patent to Giovanni Caboto to sail "under the royal banners and ensigns, to all parts, countries, and seas, of the east, of the west, and of the north, and to seek out and discover whatsoever they might be, which before this time had been unknown to Christians." If Caboto and his retinue found anything, the patent continued, they should "set up the royal banners and ensigns in the countries, places, or mainland newly found by them." In other words, Henry VII gave his explorers free rein to claim any land for the king, by force if necessary.
Caboto, known to us today as John Cabot, sailed in May 1497, with five ships and his three sons. On the voyage -- quite a short one by the standards of the day -- they hit upon present-day North America, somewhere around Labrador. The Cabots thought they had found Asia, and claimed to have sailed south along the coast for some time; Preble, a United States Navy admiral, disputes the southerly drift, since the Cabots returned to England three months after leaving (and with just a single ship). A year later, John Cabot and his son Sebastian sailed again. The father died on the journey; the son, however, sailed down the east coast of the future United States, realizing along the way that he wasn't looking at Asia. Wrote Preble: "English flags were the first which were planted along these shores, and Englishmen were the first of the modern Europeans who with their own eyes surveyed the great assemblage of countries in which they were destined to become prominent; and were also the first to put their feet upon it. The history of each one of the chain of states stretching along the western shores of the Atlantic begins with Sebastian Cabot and his expedition in 1498." Strictly speaking, Cabot was not an Englishman, but he was an agent of Henry VII; his crew likely contained some Englishmen.
Little was done to advance exploration of the land Cabot discovered. Henry VII and his son, Henry VIII, sent out other voyages, but the ostensible goal was still to find a shorter route to the Far East. One such voyage in 1536 was a complete calamity and resulted in the death of nearly everyone involved, and this disastrous excursion soured the crown on the notion of dipping into the coffers for another try.
For the next fifty years, no Englishmen or crosses of St. George appeared in America. The dirty work, however, was done; the English knew America was there, and they would return. In the meantime, royal intrigue would continue to shape the flag of the United States. The brouhaha centered around two cousins: Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic, and Elizabeth, the daughter of the decidedly un-Catholic Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. To say the cousins disliked each other would be to greatly understate things; their rivalry got serious in 1558, when Elizabeth ascended the throne of England. The Queen of Scots was trouble, something she made clear when she looked the other way at the assassination in 1567 of her second husband, Lord Darnley, at the hands of conspirators led by Lord Bothwell, who subsequently married Mary. The Scots rebelled and threw Mary in jail; she escaped, abdicated her crown, and went to England, where she raised an army to make a nuisance of herself to Elizabeth. Copious amounts of scheming ensued and eventually Elizabeth had Mary imprisoned in 1568. While Mary sat in jail, Elizabeth got busy sponsoring early attempts at colonizing the New World. The settlers called their colony Virginia, in honor of their -- allegedly -- Virgin Queen. It wasn't until twenty years later, in 1587, that Elizabeth ordered the execution of Mary.
When Mary flew the coop in Scotland, her son by Lord Darnley, James VI, stood next in line for the Scottish crown. James assumed control of Scotland in 1583, and when the Virgin Queen died in 1603, he was the next relative in line for the crown of England. There is no little dark humor in that, upon the death of the woman who ordered his mother's head chopped off, James became the sole king of England and Scotland. In this capacity, he called himself James I.
James I was a rotten king. Seemingly unaware of the destructive nature of religious contention, despite the rift between his mother and her cousin, James occupied himself primarily with asserting his divine rights. He managed to alienate the Puritans among his subjects with his strong High Church beliefs (strongly tilted toward Catholicism), and the Parliament disliked him as well. His unpopular actions didn't stop there: To the chagrin of many, he issued in 1606 a proclamation that combined the flags of England and Scotland into a single design, representative of his united kingdom. The red cross of St. George and its white background were married with the white diagonal cross of St. Andrew's with its blue field. This red, white, and blue blur of crosses was known as the King's Colors, and intended solely for use as a naval flag, otherwise known as a jack. In 1634, the British historian Rushworth noted that "the union flag, that is the St. George's and St. Andrew's crosses joined together, was still to be reserved as an ornament of power of the king's own ships, and ships in his immediate service and pay, and none other." English ships still flew the red cross and Scottish ships the white, but they occupied a secondary position to the king's union jack.
Rushworth makes it clear that the King's Colors were the sovereign's alone. They were not intended to, nor did they, represent the people that lived on the island he ruled.
"For millennia," says Whitney Smith, "flags were essentially the right of and restricted to the ruling classes -- the priests and the kings who told people how the world worked and why they should be obedient. Flags were used for religious ceremonies, coronations, and on the battlefield, but they were very limited in number. When you get to the Middle Ages, there is an extension through heraldry [coats of arms] to an elite class to personal standards and banners. It was one of the things they were entitled to that ordinary people were not. It is often pointed out that all classes had coats of arms, but this is true only in the sense that, today, there are some poor people who own expensive cars. It was a rarity, and totally different from being among the ruling classes.
"When international shipping grew into something more than hopping from one port to the next, flags were used for signaling purposes. The great fleets of the 1700s and 1800s -- and even much earlier -- made extensive use of them. The sailors had to know friend from enemy, and a ship without a flag was considered a pirate. Pirates, of course, sometimes used flags as a ruse to get people within their grasp. By the end of the seventeenth century, flags were being used to such an extent that a guide book to flags appears in 1695. The book was necessary because flying the wrong flag -- or failing to properly identify one -- could land you in big trouble. On the other hand, there was no emotional attachment to most of them, and there was no extensive use of them on land. It's not as if people looked to them as being their flag. For that feeling to evolve, you have to look to the democratic countries, where the citizens became involved as individuals and not just as part of the masses or as soldiers.
"One of the first flags to take on the feeling of a national flag was the original Dutch tricolor of orange, white, and blue. During the Dutch uprising in the Netherlands -- the Eighty Years War, which started in the mid-sixteenth century and lasted until 1648 -- people used the flag in local communities. It showed their allegiance to Prince William of Orange. They were a seafaring people, so the distinction between land and sea wasn't as sharp as it was in France, for instance, which had coastal communities but primarily had an inland population.
"In the modern sense," continues Smith, "the Continental Colors was the first national flag in the world. It preceded the French Tricolor and, although the Union Jack was around, it was not considered a national flag. It was a royal banner that was used for specific purposes. There were some flags that are used today as national flags, but they weren't used as national flags prior [to the Continental Colors]. The Danish flag, for instance, was a religious flag, a royal flag, and a military flag, but it wasn't until 1848 during a war with Prussia that it became the national flag. The fact that they adopted a flag that was already in existence doesn't mean it was national from the time it was first used.
"The American Revolution and French Revolution are terribly important in the establishment of national flags as we know them today. For the first time, the people are saying, 'This is what we stand for. This is what we're fighting for. We're going to make our own flags and use them.'"
On January 16, 1707, Parliament officially adopted the King's Colors -- the union jack of James I -- as the "ensigns armorial to our kingdom...to be used on all flags, banners, standards and ensigns both at sea and land." These words were part of the Act of Union, which officially created the united kingdom of Great Britain under Queen Anne. (The modern day Union Jack also includes the red cross of St. Patrick for Ireland, not added to the flag until 1801.)
By the time of the rule of Queen Anne, the American colonies had blossomed, due in large part to the English Puritans who fled for the Massachusetts Bay colony to escape religious persecution during the reign of James I. Two Dutch travelers, Jasper Dankers and Peter Sluyter, recorded their impressions of the New England colonies in 1680:
New England is now described as extending from the Fresh [Connecticut] River to Cape Cod and thence to Kennebec [Maine], comprising three provinces or colonies -- Fresh River, or Connecticut, Rhode Island and the other islands to Cape Cod, and Boston, which stretches from thence north. They are subject to no one, but acknowledge the king of England for their lord, and therefore no ships enter unless they have English passports or commissions...Each province chooses its own governor from the magistracy, and the magistrates are chosen from the principal inhabitants, merchants or planters. They are all independent in matters of religion, if it can be called religion; many of them perhaps more for the purpose of enjoying the benefits of its privileges than for any regard to truth and godliness. I observed that while the English flag or color has a red ground with a small white field in the uppermost corner where there is a red cross [St. George's], they have dispensed with this cross in their color and preserved the rest.
(As will be seen, the crossless flag described was what remained when the St. George's cross was literally slashed out of the English flag in 1634 in Salem, Massachusetts, in what may be thought of as the first example of flag desecration in America.)
The independent nature of the New England colonists had been on display for all to see for nearly thirty years before the preceding words were written. A mint was established in Massachusetts in 1652 and the coins it issued clearly point to the twin (and often contradictory) American beliefs of self-determination and unity. On one side of the coins was the word "Massachusetts" and the favored symbol of New England, the pine tree; on the flip side were the words "New England," and the year, 1652 a.d. That year was stamped on every pine tree coin minted for the next thirty years. During that interval, Charles II was placed on the throne by Parliament in 1660, restoring the monarchy that had been interrupted during the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell's stint as Lord Protector. Charles had every reason to be unaware of goings on in the colonies at the time; he had tried to grab the crown by force in 1651 and was defeated by Cromwell, who had his men search high and low for the upstart Charles. At one point, Charles was concealed in an oak tree to avoid capture. Once he was king, Charles became furious when he learned the Massachusetts colonists had assumed the right to coin money, something only he could empower them to do. When shown the coins, Charles II immediately inquired as to the type of tree represented on the coin. Since the quality of the minting process made the image murky, the king was told, "That is the royal oak which saved your majesty's life." The speaker, Sir Charles Temple, was a man who looked favorably upon the colony, and his little white lie assuaged the king's tantrum. Hoodwinked into believing the colonists had given him his just due by using the royal oak, Charles called them "a parcel of honest dogs."
Charles's cheeky reference to the colonists as dogs was surely harmless, and it's easy to imagine him tittering as he said it. The New England colonists, however, might have taken umbrage had they heard the remark. The increasing weariness they felt at being beholden to the crown wouldn't boil over for another hundred years and, even then, there was some initial hesitancy about severing ties with the monarchy. However, the national identity of the United States was beginning to take form, and the colonists would rely more and more on flags as a means of letting the British know how they felt. One of the earliest among such flags was the pine tree banner of New England.
The Continental Colors were raised over the Cambridge camp at Prospect Hill on January 2, 1776, to celebrate the official forming of the Continental Army and to show the British there was still some fight left in the colonials, despite the thrashing they had taken on Breed's Hill in June of 1775. The battle on the hill in Charlestown was the first major bloodletting of the revolution; both sides were battered, and retired -- the colonials beat a retreat to Cambridge and the British headed to Boston to put their feet up awhile. It cannot be said with any certainty which flags, if any, flew over the colonial ranks during the battle (which has gone down mistakenly in history as the Battle of Bunker Hill). The most famous painting of the battle, by John Trumbull (who watched the fight through a spyglass from a distance of about four miles) shows the colonials engaged in hand-to-hand combat under a Pine Tree flag -- a red field with a white canton containing a pine tree -- and two other flags, one of solid red and another, only partially visible in the rendering, that is difficult to discern. Trumbull, a brilliant artist, admitted later that he couldn't really see what was going on through the spyglass, and he is known to have fudged details in his work -- particularly those pertaining to flags -- for dramatic effect. Certainly, he wasn't the first, nor the last, artist to make use of that profession's well-known license.
The Pine Tree flag may well have hovered over the bayonets on Breed's Hill. Who's to say? There were many flag designs in use in the colonies at the time. Some of the most popular were flags featuring a rattlesnake, often combined with the words "Don't Tread On Me," which remain etched in the American mind even today because of the sentiment they express: Namely, we're tough customers when the situation calls for it.
The rattlesnake was used symbolically in the colonies for the first time in 1754 as a result of the Albany Congress. That gathering, which lasted from June 19 to July 11, included delegates from the colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maryland; among the delegates from Pennsylvania was Benjamin Franklin. The group assembled, along with 150 representatives of the Iroquois Indian Federation, at the behest of the London Board of Trade, to discuss two main topics: issues the Iroquois had with the colonies and the increasingly hostile French forces who, allied with other Indian tribes, presented clear and present danger to the colonies.
The result of the Albany Congress was a plan written by Franklin, which called for one main colonial body to deal with Indian affairs, laws, and taxes, with the presiding officer appointed by the king. However, the plan never took effect, primarily because both sides -- the colonies and the king -- felt it granted the other too much power. Franklin's plan had plenty of merit, and parts of it inspired sections of the Declaration of Independence more than twenty years later. Before the Albany plan went down in flames, Franklin stumped for its adoption by creating a cartoon that showed a rattlesnake separated into segments representing the various colonies. The image was captioned simply: "Unite or Die."
"Many people today think that was a flag," says Whitney Smith, "and they look for reproductions of what they refer to as the 'Join or Die' flag. There never was one. It was a cartoon, but it had a tremendous influence on later flags. The snake as a symbol was used extensively prior to that time. It had antecedents in Europe, where a snake biting its own tail was a symbol of eternity. Rattlesnakes appealed to colonials because the snakes were indigenous to America, and didn't strike unless provoked. Even then, before they struck, they gave warning, but when their patience was at an end, look out!" It was common at the time to believe that the timber rattlesnake, the model for the later flags, had thirteen rattles. In fact, the number of rattles varies from snake to snake.
Twenty years after the Albany Congress, Franklin's cartoon popped up again, during the flap that ensued after the passing of the Stamp Act by Parliament. On November 17, 1774, the newspaper Massachusetts Sun ran the snake cartoon under its banner, and over a story encouraging the people of Quebec to join the resistance to the king. In short order, images of snakes were as plentiful in the colonies as the snakes themselves.
The rattlesnake eventually appeared on two flags still recognizable today: One, known as the Gadsden Flag, is a yellow banner with a white rattlesnake coiled over the words "Don't Tread on Me." It is believed that Christopher Gadsden, a member of the Continental Congress from South Carolina, created this flag to present to the provincial assembly of his home colony. Gadsden's inspiration was provided by the rank flag of Commodore Esek Hopkins, the first commander-in-chief of the Continental Navy; the commodore's flag, flown from the main mast, featured the rattlesnake extended diagonally across a background of red and white stripes, with its head near the upper left. Today, Hopkins' rank flag is referred to as the first navy jack. "The flag flown by Commodore Hopkins really struck a chord with people, as did the 'Don't Tread on Me' motto," says Smith. "Versions of those flags have been used ever since, including by the Confederacy in the Civil War."
Of all the rattlesnake flags, however, the one that displayed the most direct feeling of the gathering storm of independence was that of the Proctor's Independent Battalion, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. John Proctor's men first raised the flag in 1775. Proctor's gang did not fight in the Revolution as a unit, and so, it is unknown if the flag ever saw battle. It was fashioned from an old British ensign of solid red with a small Union Jack in the corner. The person who reworked the flag for Proctor placed a coiled rattlesnake with thirteen rattles over the words "Don't Tread on Me," and the head of the snake was quite purposefully striking at the Union Jack.
Nonetheless, despite the popularity and resonance of the rattlesnake flags, when the New Year rolled in and a flag appeared over Prospect Hill thumbing the colonial nose at the British, it was the Continental Colors -- thirteen red and white stripes, with the Union Jack of the day in the canton. The flag may have been used weeks previous on a ship or two, but its big unveiling was ordered by Washington at Prospect Hill (though it's unclear if the general was there in person). Interestingly enough, the flag raising coincided with the arrival in the colonies of a letter from George III, in which he averred that all would be forgiven if the colonials would just admit the error of their ways.
There or not, we do have Washington's impressions of the moment from a letter he wrote on January 4: "We are at length favored with the sight of his Majesty's most gracious peech, breathing sentiments of tenderness and compassion for his deluded American subjects...and farcical enough, we gave great joy to them [the British in Boston] without knowing or intending it, for on that day which gave being to our new army, but before the [king's] proclamation came to hand, we hoisted the union flag in compliment to the United Colonies. But, behold! It was received at Boston as a token of the deep impression the speech had made upon us, and as a signal of submission.
"By this time [the writing of the letter], I presume they begin to think it strange that we have not made a formal surrender of our lines."
There was some confusion regarding the new flag. Preble cites an anonymous letter written on January 2 that reads in part: "The grand union flag of thirteen stripes was raised on a height near Boston. The regulars [British soldiers] did not understand it; and as the king's speech had just been read, as they supposed, they thought the new flag was a token of submission."
Not all who witnessed the event were so misled. A British transport captain wrote from Boston to the ship's owners in London on January 17: "I can see the rebels' camp very plain, whose colors a little while ago, were entirely red; but on the receipt of the king's speech, which they burnt, they hoisted the union flag, which is here supposed to intimate the union of the provinces."
In London, the Annual Register reported similarly: "They burnt the king's speech, and changed their colors from a plain red ground, which they had hitherto used, to a flag with thirteen stripes, as a symbol of the union and number of the colonies." (The solid red flags the British correspondents mention were the colors of one or two Connecticut regiments in the rebel camp.)
Because of the references by many, including Washington, to the new flag as a "union flag," the banner raised over Prospect Hill was in later years (and to a large degree to this day) called the Grand Union flag. It was indeed a union flag in the generic sense of those words. The colonials were familiar with the notion of flags showing unity from the frequent sight of the Union Jack and from their own pine-tree and rattlesnake flags. The description of the flag as a "grand union" simply meant that it was a great or large union. There is among the many versions of the Stars and Stripes throughout American history one known as the Grand Union, but it would come many years after the revolution. "At the time," says Whitney Smith, "the term continental meant what we mean today by federal. And the word colors meant flag. That flag on Prospect Hill was the Continental Colors, and that's how it was referred to at the time."
The Continental Colors saw extensive use during the next two years. After slight initial confusion among those who first saw it, the British came to understand the message the flag was sending. The key to its significance lay not only in the number of the stripes, but in their color. The red and white stripes were familiar to some of the British onlookers; they were the symbol of the Sons of Liberty, the New England radicals who kick-started the revolution.
Copyright © 2002 by Michael Corcoran
Meet the Author
Michael Corcoran has written seven previous books, including Duel in the Sun, an account of the 1977 British Open, and For Which It Stands: An Anecdotal Biography of the American Flag. He's written for numerous magazines and been the editor of a few. He lives with his wife and their children in Springtown, Pennsylvania.
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