Monday, March 9, 2009

Early American Flags

Flags can tell a lot about a country and what is holds dear. For example, the British Union Jack is a blending of the crosses of Saints George, Andrew and Patrick, which symbolically link England, Scotland, Ireland and (by implication) Wales. The Mexican flag blends independence (symbolized in green), with the purity of Catholicism (symbolized in white), with the blood shed by patriotic heroes (symbolized in red), with the shield symbolizing Aztec heritage.

Such was the case with a wide number of early American flags. In fact, a large assortment of flags were created during the early years of the American Revolution to symbolize a plethora of ideals and beliefs. Here are just a few:

The famous "Join or Die" flag, which has received additional attention in our time due to its portrayal in the HBO John Adams miniseries, dates back to the French and Indian War (7 Years' War). The design was the product of none other than Benjamin Franklin, who was a big fan of the rattlesnake image. It was Franklin who believed that the symbol of the rattlesnake could capture the hope for unity amongst the colonies, who were to face the French in a war that would determine much of the fate of the American landscape. As Franklin stated:

Tho’ measures that suit these Times shou’d be concerted with the utmost prudence, they ought to be executed with the greatest Vigour, and delays are not only dangerous but fatal. The safety of the Province, under Almighty God, depends upon a union among ourselves.
The yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flag (officially known as the Gadsden Flag) is arguably the most famous and popular flag of the American Revolution. This flag was presented to the Continental Congress by South Carolinian Christopher Gadsden. The flag was used for a time by the Continental Navy, but was later replaced. The interesting thing about the Gadsden Flag is that it provides us with an insight into the popularity of the rattlesnake in colonial America. During this era, many Americans embraced the myth that a rattlesnake, if chopped into pieces, would come back to life if the snake were buried before sundown. This is why Benjamin Franklin's "Join or Die" snake was so popular. The idea of national unity when combined with snake folklore was a powerful symbol. In fact, the rattlesnake was so popular that it was seriously considered for the national emblem based on the following beliefs:

*The rattlesnake has no eyelids and is therefore eternally vigilant.
*Colonial Americans believed that the rattlesnake would never attack first, and that it never retreated from a fight.
*Colonial American society believed that a rattlesnake never slept, suggesting that the animal never tired.
*The rattlesnake is indigenous to North America

Again, the theme of national unity is easily captured in the Gadsden Flag. In his highly praised pamphlet, Common Sense, Thomas Paine invokes the importance that unity had for early Americans and the divine duty shared by the colonies to unite together for the common cause:

It is not in numbers but UNITY that our great strength lies; yet our present numbers are sufficient to repeal the forces of all the world. The Continent has, at this time, the largest body of armed and disciplined men of any other under Heaven and is just arrived at that pitch of strength, in which no single colony is able to support itself, and the whole, when UNITED, can accomplish the matter...
Another flag that has received a lot of attention is the "Appeal to Heaven" flag. This flag's origin is also before the American Revolution. Settlers in Massachusetts used the green tree as a symbol of peace roughly 100 years before the American Revolution. When war broke out, the flag was naturally adopted for their cause. General George Washington even adopted the flag and used it as the official banner for his navy. Washington personally financed a six-ship fleet out of his own pocket. Knowing that this small rabble of a Navy could never stand up to the mighty arm of the British, Washington requested that this unique banner be flown by each of these six ships. At Washington's request, this "white flag, with its trademark green pine tree, and the inscription, 'An Appeal to Heaven'" became the official banner of the "Washington Navy."

And finally, this flag (it could be argued as America's FIRST flag) was transported to the "New World" on board the Santa Maria, where Christopher Columbus allegedly posed the banner as an act of claiming the lands for the Spanish crown. The flag represents the rule of King Ferdinand and Isabel (in Spanish spelled Ysabel), hence the "F" and "Y" with a crown. And, of course, the flag captures the Catholic heritage that Columbus hoped to with the natives.

For more on early American flags and their history click here.


Anonymous said...

Columbus never set foot on what is now U.S. soil. That's a fact.

bpabbott said...

Anon is correct. Columbus sailed the Caribbean