Sunday, March 28, 2010

George Washington and the United States Flags

We recognize George Washington as a central figure in the struggle for American independence and the founding of United States. Washington’s contributions more that justify this judgment. Likely for this reason, histories of the United States flag have endeavored to chronicle Washington’s part in the flag’s history. Unfortunately, the historical record is sketchy and incomplete. Still, Washington’s influence is there when we consider his role of the Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.
To understand Washington and the history of the U.S. flag, we must consider the role of flags in eighteenth century warfare. In the twenty-first century flags, fifes, drums and uniforms play a ceremonial role in parades and pageantry. However, in the eighteenth century these items of military gear were essential equipment for an army.
Washington received his military training as an officer in the Virginia Militia during the French and Indian War. The British used a system of two military flags: a Kings Color and a Regimental Color. The placement of these two flags or colors determined each soldier’s position in his regiment’s formation. In the din of battle, the placement of these flags and the music of the fife and drums, communicated the orders of battle drill. A regiment’s colors helped establish military discipline in the field and in battle.
New England militia did not prevail against a larger, better supplied British force at Bunker Hill. However, they did exact huge casualties upon the British army. They demonstrated that American colonists could fight the troops of Great Britain. In Philadelphia, Washington wore his militia uniform when Congress met. His stature and reputation influenced Congress to create a Continental Army with Washington as Commander-in-chief. Traveling to the militia encampment in Cambridge, Washington found willing soldiers. Although they were accomplished marksmen, they lacked military training and discipline that their new commander deemed essential. In the General Orders he issued on first day of January in 1776, Washington observed, “that an Army without Order, Regularity and Discipline, is no better than a Commission'd Mob . . . .” For Washington, a military force without appropriate flags, fife, drums and uniforms, was a “Commission’d Mob” and not an army. To win respect of the British forces, American colonists needed not only to prevail in battle, they needed to present themselves as “an Army . . . [with] Order, Regularity and Discipline. . . .” To achieve this, they needed appropriate military equipment, including appropriate flags. In place of a King’s Color, the colonists would have used a flag to symbolize their union. This union flag is called the National Color.
Washington’s staff corresponded with the Continental Congress repeatedly in the effort to obtain the needed flags. Congress failed to fill the requisitions for colors. Washington was determined to lead a disciplined army not a commissioned mob. A disciplined army needed appropriate military equipment, including flags.
The invasion of British troops forced the evacuation of New York. The necessities for boots, clothing, provisions and shelter pushed the need for flags into the background. Still, Washington continued in his efforts to turn the “Commission’d Mob” into a disciplined Army. Von Steuben drilled a ragged force at Valley Forge. Von Steuben’s drill manual includes diagrams of troop formations showing the placement of colors. The position of colors is included as part of the drill instructions. Over the period of the war, some regiments obtained military flags. Others made due with locally made flags. Washington built his disciplined army as he fought the War of Independence. He never received from Congress all the flags he wanted. Still when Cornwallis’ army surrendered at Yorktown, the American army carried U.S. National Colors and Regimental Colors with pride. Washington and his American army had bested the well trained, experienced and disciplined troops of the British Empire. With flags flying, Washington led his “…Army . . . [with] Order, Regularity and Discipline. . . ” to victory.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A New Constellation

Today’s U.S. flag boasts a union with fifty stars, one for each of our fifty states. What then did the thirteen white stars in the blue union of our first flag represent? The thirteen original colonies? Yes, that is true in a general sense. However, in a more specific sense, the thirteen stars actually represented not thirteen colonies, but a new constellation. The wording of the first flag resolution adopted on June 14th in 1777 reads exactly: “Resolved that the Flag of the united states be 13 stripes alternate red and white, that the union be 13 starts white in a blue field representing a new constellation.”
We understand a stripe and a star for each of the thirteen original colonies that formed the thirteen United States. However, what did the members of the Continental Congress mean by “a new constellation?” To understand that, we need to forget our twenty-first century interpretation. The symbol of a new constellation is an eighteenth century concept that fit the context of the time when American patriots declared their independence from the British Empire. After two and one third centuries of independence, we fail to understand the original meaning of the flag resolution and the “new constellation.”
Stars are now common symbols found on many flags. This was not the case in the 1770s. The introduction of stars on flags reflected ideas and concepts that were then new.
Modern astronomy emphasizes the science of light harnessed by giant telescopes. It is a discipline of rockets, satellites and scientific observation. Astronomy in the eighteenth century was a study of celestial maps and spheres locating named stars and constellations. A well equipped classroom of the seventeen hundreds included a terrestrial globe showing colonies, nations and empires. An accompanying celestial globe in similar fashion displayed planets, stars and constellations. Similarly, terrestrial and celestial maps and charts depicted the same details. Eighteenth century students understood that each night constellations rose in the sky taking their places among the other groupings of stars in the firmament. In this setting the stars and constellations of the heavens came to symbolize the nations and empires of the earth. Thirteen former British colonies jointed together to form a new empire that would rise like a new constellation and takes its place among the empires of the earth.
The first mention of a star on an American flag came three years before the flag resolution of 1777. On the 10th of March in 1744, The Massachusetts Spy published a verse entitled “Song for the 5th of March.” This was in remembrance of the Boston Massacre’s fourth anniversary . The seventh verse of the song reads: "A Ray of bright glory now Beams from afar, Bless’t dawn of an Empire to rise; The American Ensign now sparkles a Star, Which shall shortly flame wide through the skies." We don’t know what flag or “American Ensign” bore a star in 1774. But the symbolism is stated clearly. The star stands for the dawn of a rising Empire. What empire? An American ensign would logically represent an American empire.
The flag resolution of 1777 gives the phrase “a new constellation” in a matter of fact wording with no explanation. It appears that the Congress expected readers would understand the intended meaning and symbolism. Five years later in 1782, congress adopted the Great Seal of the United States. It included a crest showing a cluster of stars described as a “new constellation.” Charles Thompson, the secretary of Congress provided “notes and explanations” to detail the meaning of the symbols used in the design of the seal. He wrote the following: “The Constellation denotes a new State taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers.” Some have argued that Thompson’s “notes and explanation” apply only to the great seal and have no relevance to the flag adopted five years earlier. This is true for symbols on the seal that did not come from the flag’s design. However, the phrase “new constellation” comes directly from the flag resolution. Thompson was secretary of the Congress in 1777 and would have understood the intended meaning of the phrase in the flag resolution.
The five years that separate the adoption of the flag and the seal is short and bridged by Thompson’s service. To ignore his explanation deprives us of an account that makes sense and is consistent with the context of the times. The verse from 1774, the flag resolution of 1777 and Thompson’s “notes and explanations” of 1782 give us insight—when considered together—into the meaning of the flag’s new constellation. Stars in the heavens are grouped together into constellations. The former colonies of the British Empire, on becoming independent states, grouped together forming a new American empire. Just as constellations rise to take their place in the nighttime sky, America’s new empire would rise to take its place among the nations and empires of the world.