How Many Flags Over Texas?

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It’s a good question. Texas has been governed by six different nations over the course of its history, it has its own state flag, and there is the matter of Texas’s constitution allowing it to split four new states away from itself, which would all require new flags for themselves. We’ll get into that part of the problem later.

First, let’s discuss the flags that have already flown over the state. Texas was originally settled by Europeans around 1685. The French established a colony called Fort Saint Louis, which they had originally meant to place on the Mississippi River. The colony only lasted a few years before collapsing, but its presence meant that the Spanish felt they had to reestablish their claim, having made landfall and a map a century and a half earlier, then largely ignoring it.

The Spanish thus constructed missions in East Texas, which were routed by native resistance. They tried again after the French started settling southern Louisiana, establishing San Antonio in 1718 as the first civilian Spanish settlement in Texas.

This gives us two of the famous “Six Flags Over Texas”: Spain (twice: 1519 – 1685, and then again from 1690 – 1821), and France (from 1685 – 1690). Which flags were they, though? Spain used several different flags during its exploration of the New World. One of the most commonly seen on “Six Flags” displays, since it was chosen by the Texas Centennial Exposition committee, is the Castile and Leon royal banner, consisting of two lions and two castles:

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Nice, right? Unfortunately, Spain wasn’t using this flag during the period they were in Texas – it’s the banner used by Cortez during the conquering of Mexico. They mostly were using this one at the time:

Which is fine, representing the House of Burgundy, except that nobody seems to recognize it as a Spanish flag anymore. The Texas Historical Commission proposed in 1996 that the Spanish flag from 1785 be used. It is supplanting the royal banner in displays as per the Historical Commission’s recommendation.

The French flag is even less clear. There was no official national flag of France, at the time, and the flag carried by the leader of the colony is unclear. A few proposals were made, including one with three white or gold fleur-de-lis on a blue banner.

Two down. Next is Mexico, which controlled the area from 1821 – 1836. Its flag was adopted in 1823 and is more or less the same today, barring some artistic variance:

Nowadays you are more likely to see a stylized eagle in place of the realistic one depicted here. Very little controversy or confusion with this flag.

Next, of course, the state of Texas itself. It has had two different official flags. The first is extremely straightforward – a yellow star on a blue banner. It only lasted from 1836 – 1839. It was then replaced with the current flagEveryone knows this one.

The Confederate flag, flown over Texas between 1861 – 1865, brings us back to vagueness and confusion again. Their flag went through several changes during their existence, from the Stars and Bars, which was never actually officially adopted by the Confederacy, but nonetheless was used for two years; to the Stainless Banner.

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The one most commonly seen in displays is the Stars and Bars; as mentioned, this was never legislatively adopted as an official flag, largely because it resembles the Stars and Stripes of the United States too strongly. This made it unsuitable as a war banner, to say the least.

The Stars and Stripes, of course, is the flag of the previous (1845 – 1861) and next (1865 – present) nation to claim Texas: the United States of America.

The design is well-known, as is its symbolism. The thirteen stripes representing the thirteen original colonies, with the field of white stars on the blue canton representing the total number of current states.

After the Civil War, the United States controlled Texas.

This brings us to the point of how Texas actually entered the Union. On December 29, 1845, statehood was granted to Texas, with the proviso that it be a slave state. The Missouri Compromise, however, forbade slavery north of the 36-degree 30-minute northern latitude line, as well as west of Missouri. The new territory extended further in both directions. In order to overcome objections to the violation, Congress passed a joint resolution that allowed Texas to split itself into as many as five states.

Technically, it allows Texas to split off up to four new states, and the remainder would retain the name and statehood of Texas, but that’s just wording. The idea with this compromise was that any new states would follow the Missouri Compromise rules according to location; new states above the restriction would automatically be free states, while any remaining in the area where slavery was still allowed would hold a popular vote to determine their slavery status.

In 1850, with the admission of California to the United States as a free state, Southerners wanted to split off an additional slave state from Texas to balance it. Instead, Texas was given ten million dollars in exchange for ceding its territory north of the line and west of Missouri, which eventually became parts of Colorado and New Mexico. A few years later, the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise and, thus, the question was settled for all time.

Except that the Civil War happened, and, with its end, slavery was no longer allowed in any state, which meant that Texas’s ability to split into new states was unneeded. However, and this is the important part, it was never repealed. Technically, Texas can split off new states if it wants to do so.

Ordinarily such a move would require an act of Congress, which is fine; Congress has been doing that sort of thing for a long time. If it wanted to split a state after its ratification, it only needs permission from the state’s legislation. That’s how the nation was built in the first place, after all.

Land purchases were made, and then, after some time to let new settlers sort of eke out an idea of where to live and what to concern themselves with, Congress would divide them up into various states and those states would start concerning themselves with legislature and government. But it seems that Texas can do this without any permission from the federal government; indeed, without any input whatsoever.

Related to this ability is the common belief that Texas can secede from the United States at any time; this statement is more plainly false. (See above note on the Civil War and how that is not allowed.) This seems to stem from Texas’s long history of independence and the fact that it entered the Union as a sovereign republic nation. However, it was not the first republic to join the Union, nor the last. In fact, the last republic to do so was a kingdom prior to that, and Hawaii has no legal right to secede, either.

Back to the problem of the division, though. There is the issue of how to divide Texas: probably along county lines. Nate Silver came up with a method of dividing the state up into politically sound parts in 2009. He considered things like population density and demographics, to wind up with:

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New Texas is where Austin, the current capital of Texas, is located. It would be the technical remainder of the previous state of Texas and thus retains the name. Trinity has Dallas and Fort Worth; Gulfland has Houston and Corpus Christi, and would rely largely on offshore oil drilling for its economy; Plainland and El Norte would each have only about two and a half million people. This would change the political balance of power of the United States, although perhaps not as much as some might think, especially given the divisions outlined above.

So, all we need to know now is what each of our new states wants to have for its flag, right?

Not quite. There are several other proposals for division that have been raised and denied in the past; any of these previous attempts would have an equal claim for their own flags as well. For example, the best-known effort was in the late 1860s, for a vertical division into East and West Texas, which was presented to Congress but not ratified. An attempt to break off the panhandle into the state of Jefferson was floated in 1915 but also went nowhere. It’s been tried several times, most recently in the 1990s.

So, sure, on paper it looks like Texas has a unique ability to stymie Congress and suddenly add up to four stars to the flag. Can it, in fact, do that?

Now we run into the legal ramifications of precedent and what that means for Texas. In order to see what the meaning of “state” is, we turn to the Supreme Court’s decision in Escanaba Company v. the City of Chicago [107 U.S. 678 (1883). In this case, Chicago was legislating when certain drawbridges could raise and lower, and the Escanaba Company determined that the schedule was inconvenient to them and their profits. So they sued. In the briefing, Justice Stephen Field acknowledged that states have certain rights, and that they are superseded by federal jurisdiction where necessary, in this case covering free trade between states, which Escanaba claimed was being overruled by Chicago. It eventually comes to this phrasing in the opinion of the court:

Whatever the limitation upon [Illinois’s] powers as a government whilst in a territorial condition, whether from the [Northwest] Ordinance of 1787 or the legislation of Congress, it ceased to have any operative force, except as voluntarily adopted by her, after she became a State of the Union. On her admission she at once became entitled to and possessed of all the rights of dominion and sovereignty which belonged to the original States. She was admitted, and could be admitted, only, on the same footing with them. The language of the resolution admitting her is “on an equal footing with the original States in all respects whatever”… Equality of constitutional right and power is the condition of all States of the Union, old and new. (Escanaba Company v. the City of Chicago [107 U.S. 678 (1883)])

Meaning what, exactly? The last line is the important one: equality … is the condition of all States of the Union, old and new. This reveals that regardless of what a state’s constitution contains, the very fact that it is a state constrains it to abide by the rules and regulations that all the other states abide by.

If a thing is constitutionally allowed to one state, it is allowed to all others; conversely, if a thing is not allowed to all other states, it is not allowed to only one state. Therefore, since no state can divide itself without express approval from Congress, Texas cannot either.

So, the legal result is clear: Texas does not get to just produce four additional states at whim, much though some people might like it. This means, unfortunately, that there will be in this case no additional state flags produced, although designing them might be an interesting project for a rainy afternoon. If the reader does so, please remember that flags with animals on them are popular for American states and that none of them so far have any armadillos. Now is your chance to rectify this oversight!

Maybe another one that is nothing except tiny gold stars strewn on a blue field, to reflect the previous French flag above? Certainly, though, the flag that is the most needed is a jackalope rampant, probably on a red and blue field. This would cement the ambitious reader with fame in the vexillology community for all time.

Top 8 Moments in the History of the American Flag

There have been many unforgettable moments in our nation’s history, but there are a handful of moments specifically related to the American flag that really stand out. Some of these moments are simply fascinating historical happenings, while others represent significant events that helped shape the United States of America as a nation.

With that in mind, let’s discuss a healthy dose of each type of moment and explore a little bit more about one of our nation’s greatest symbols.

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Moment #1: The First Flag Is Sewn

If you hear the name Betsy Ross, you may not immediately remember that she was the woman who sewed the very first Stars and Stripes American Flag. Historical accounts say that Ms. Ross, who was a sought-after seamstress from Philadelphia, was hired by George Washington himself to sew the initial American flag featuring the stars and stripes. Because of this, it’s fair to say that Betsy Ross’s name is truly sewn into the fabric of American history.

Moment #2: 13 Stripes Are Here to Stay

Originally, tradition dictated that a new stripe would be added every time a new state was admitted into the union. When five more states were added in 1818, this tradition came to a screeching halt. Congress passed legislation stating that 13 would be the fixed number of stripes on the flag, and, rather than continuing the stripe-adding tradition of recent years, a star would be added to represent each state.

Moment #3: What’s in a Name?

It may seem a strange custom to name a flag, but there is actually a rich history of doing just that. In 1831, Captain William Driver referred to the Stars and Stripes banner as “Old Glory.” It may be that Captain Driver felt a deep kinship to the flag because of its presence on so many of his ocean voyages over the years. Whatever the reason, the name stuck, and the American flag is known as “Old Glory” to this day.

Moment #4: The Famous Photograph

The Battle of San Juan Hill was a brutal battle that took place during the Spanish-American War in 1898. On the day of this battle, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt led his men to victory over Spanish forces, after which he and his “Rough Riders” raised an American flag and posed atop San Juan Hill for one of the most famous photos in our nation’s history.

Moment #5: Raising the Flag Over Iwo-Jima

If there is one photograph that comes to mind when you think of the American flag, it’s probably this one. Taken in 1945, “Raising the Flag Over Iwo-Jima” was so well-received that it actually won the Pulitzer Prize for photography.

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Moment #6: The Half-Staff Proclamation

On certain days of the year, you look around and see flags flying at half-staff. Few people realize that the half-staff flying of the flag at specific dates and times, including Memorial Day, Peace Officers Day, for 10 days following the death of a Vice President, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Supreme Court Chief Justice (active or retired), and for the 30 days following the death of the President or any former President is a necessary protocol.

Moment #7: One Small Step for Man …

When Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, he made a famous statement about how this accomplishment was “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Almost everyone remembers these words. What they also remember is the moment (or at least a picture of the moment) when Armstrong and fellow moonwalker Buzz Aldrin staked the American flag to the moon.

Moment #8: After the Collapse of the World Trade Center

When the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001 and the World Trade Center buildings collapsed, Americans were devastated. Out of this darkness came a photograph of firefighters lifting the flag high above the ruins left behind. This picture painted an image of bravery and courage that served as a symbol of comfort and unity in the days, weeks, and months after the attack.

In Conclusion

There are so many moments in American history associated with the American flag, it’s difficult to narrow it down to just a few, let alone put them in any order. We remember these moments in time not only because of the significance of the events themselves, but because of what our flag represents to us as a nation and as individuals.

The Thirteen Colonies and Their Flags

It may come as a surprise to many that the colonies didn’t become states until four years or more after the war ended. While our Independence was declared on July 2nd and the Declaration of Independence was accepted on July 4th of 1776, the war raged on until 1783. The colonies overthrew the governors and British Lords who ruled them, in 1776, and began their own governments.

Not an easy task to do while fighting for your sovereignty! Understandably, it took a few years to have state constitutions and formally accept the Constitution of the United States as their governing principles. Going hand in hand with constitutions, each state had a date on which they were accepted into the union and their own unique flags with which they identified themselves.

Let’s take a look at each one and how they came to represent the 13 states we know today.

Delaware was named for the tribe and also an early governor of colonial Virginia, Lord de la Warr. Officially adopted on July 24, 1913, the Delaware state flag has a background of colonial blue surrounding a diamond of buff color in which the coat of arms of the state is placed.

Below the diamond are the words “December 7, 1787,” indicating the day on which Delaware was the first state to ratify the United States constitution. Because of this action, Delaware became the first state in the Union, and is, therefore, accorded the first position in such national events as presidential inaugurations.

According to members of the original commission established to design the flag, the shades of buff and colonial blue represent those of the uniform of General George Washington. Inside the diamond, the flag recognizes the importance of commerce to the state, with the ship and agriculture depicted by wheat, corn, the ox, and the farmer. Tribute is also paid to the revolutionary war soldiers. The words in the ribbon banner read Liberty and Independence.

The next state to enter the union was Pennsylvania, which occurred on December 12, 1787. Named for one of the founders of the colony, William Penn, and the Latin word “Sylvania” meaning “forest,” Pennsylvania’s state flag is composed of a blue field on which is embroidered the State Coat of Arms. The first State Flag bearing the State Coat of Arms was authorized by the General Assembly in 1799. An act of the General Assembly on June 13, 1907 standardized the flag and required that the blue field match the blue of Old Glory.

Named for the Isle of Jersey in England, New Jersey was the third state to join the United States on December 18, 1787. The state flag of New Jersey is buff colored. The state coat of arms is emblazoned in the center, the shield with three plows and a horse’s head above it. The two women represent the goddesses of Liberty and Agriculture. A ribbon at the bottom includes the year of independence in 1776 and reads: “Liberty and Prosperity.” The New Jersey state flag was formally adopted in 1896.

Georgia was the fourth state to become a part of the union on January 2, 1788. Named for King George II of England, their flag may look familiar, as it is similar to the flag of the Confederate States of America. The Georgia flag has three red and white stripes and the state coat of arms on a blue field in the upper left corner.

Thirteen stars surrounding the seal denote Georgia’s position as one of the original thirteen colonies. On the seal three pillars supporting an arch represent the three branches of government: legislative, judicial, and executive. A man with sword drawn is defending the Constitution, whose principles are wisdom, justice, and moderation. The date 1776 represents the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The flag was officially adopted on May 8th, 2003.

Connecticut was named for the Algonquin word quinnehtukqutmeaning “by the long tidal river” and was founded by Thomas Hooker among others. They became part of the United States on February 6, 1788. On a field of azure blue is an ornamental white shield with three grapevines, each bearing three bunches of purple grapes.

The state’s motto “He who Transplanted Sustains Us” is displayed on a white ribbon. The vines stand for the first settlements of English people who began to move from Massachusetts to Connecticut in the 1630s. These settlements were thought of as grape vines that had been transplanted. The flag was adopted in 1897.

Though founded in 1630 by John Winthrop and other Pilgrims, Massachusetts didn’t become a state until February 6, 1788, as the sixth state to join the union. On a white field is a blue shield emblazoned with the image of a Native American, Massachuset. He holds a bow in one hand and an arrow in the other. The arrow is pointing downward, representing peace. The white star represents Massachusetts as one of the original thirteen states. Around the shield is a blue ribbon with the motto: “By the Sword We Seek Peace, but Peace Only Under Liberty.” Above the shield is an arm and sword, representing the first part of the motto. Though the flag was adopted in 1915, it was amended in 1971.

Named for Queen Henrietta Maria, Maryland joined the union on April 28, 1788. The Maryland flag contains the family crest of the Calvert and Crossland families. Maryland was founded as an English colony in 1634 by Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore. The black and Gold designs belong to the Calvert family. The red and white design belongs to the Crossland family. The flag was finally made official in 1904.

Settled by the English colonist, South Carolina was named for King Charles I, whose name in Latin is “Carolus.” Joining the United States on May 23, 1788 made South Carolina the 8th state in the union. Asked by the Revolutionary Council of Safety in the fall of 1775 to design a flag for the use of South Carolina troops, Col. William Moultrie chose a blue which matched the color of their uniforms and a crescent which reproduced the silver emblem worn on the front of their caps. The palmetto tree was added later to represent Moultrie’s heroic defense of the palmetto-log fort on Sullivan’s Island against the attack of the British fleet on June 28, 1776.

John Wheelwright founded New Hampshire in 1638, and the state became the 9th to join the union on June 21, 1788. New Hampshire’s state seal depicts the frigate USS Raleigh, and is surrounded by a laurel wreath with nine stars. The Raleigh is one of the first 13 warships sponsored by the Continental Congress for a new American navy, built in 1776 at Portsmouth. The seal is surrounded by a laurel wreath. The wreath is an ancient symbol of fame, honor, and victory. The nine stars within the wreath show that New Hampshire was the ninth state to join the Union. The water stands for the harbor of Portsmouth, and in the yellow-colored spit of land is granite, a strong igneous rock, representing both New Hampshire’s rugged landscape and the sturdy character of her people.

The first colony founded by John Smith in 1607 was Virginia, which became the 11th state to join the union on June 25, 1788. The state was named for the Virgin Queen of England, Elizabeth I. A deep blue field contains the seal of Virginia with the Latin motto “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” which means “Thus Always to Tyrants.” The flag was immediately adopted in 1776.

The two figures are acting out the meaning of the motto. Both are dressed as warriors. The woman, Virtue, represents Virginia. The man holding a scourge and chain shows that he is a tyrant. His fallen crown is nearby, clearly a nod to the British monarchy.

New York, named after the Duke of York, officially became a state on July 26, 1788. The state coat of arms is emblazoned on a dark blue field. The seal portrays the goddess Liberty holding a pole with a Liberty Cap on top, representing freedom. At her feet is a discarded crown, a symbol of the monarchy from England which no longer ruled the colonies at the end of the Revolutionary War.

On the right is the goddess, Justice. She wears a blindfold and carries the scales of justice, meaning that everyone receives equal treatment under the law. The state motto “Excelsior” on a white ribbon expresses the idea of reaching upward to higher goals. On the shield a sun rises over the Hudson highlands as ships sail the Hudson River. Above the shield is an eagle resting on a globe representing the Western Hemisphere.

North Carolina was settled by Virginia colonists looking to expand their settlements in 1653. Like its southern counterpart, it was named for King Charles I and became a state on November 21, 1789. The law states “That the flag of North Carolina shall consist of a blue union, containing in the center thereof a white star with the letter N in gilt on the left and the letter C in gilt on the right of said star, the circle containing the same to be one-third the width of the union.

The fly of the flag shall consist of two equally proportioned bars; the upper bar to be red, the lower bar to be white; that the length of the bars horizontally shall be equal to the perpendicular length of the union, and the total length of the flag shall be one-third more than its width. That above the star in the center of the union there shall be a gilt scroll in semi-circular form, containing in black letters this inscription ‘May 20th, 1775,’ and that below the star there shall be a similar scroll containing in black letters the inscription: ‘April 12th, 1776.’” These dates represent the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence and the Halifax Resolves, respectively, making North Carolina one of the forerunners of American independence.

Rhode Island was settled in 1636 by Roger Williams, who had been banned from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his religious views. It was the first state to renounce the British crown, and the last to join the union on May 20, 1790, holding out until they were assured the Bill of Rights would be a part of the constitution.

Placed on a white field is a circle of thirteen gold stars representing the first thirteen states. The stars surround a gold ship’s anchor. The state’s motto “Hope” is on a blue ribbon below the anchor. It is possibly named in honor of the Greek Island of Rhodes, or was named Roode Eylandt by Adriaen Block, Dutch explorer, because of its red clay.

The History of the Washington State Flag

Which state flag features a deep green background and is the only one to have a picture of a person (think Founding Fathers)? If the title of this article didn’t already give it away, you were still probably able to guess that the answer is Washington. One of the most distinctive flags in the United States, the Washington State flag is easy to remember once you’ve seen it.

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Washington became the 42nd state on November 11, 1889, but it wasn’t until March 5, 1923 that their state flag became official. The Washington State flag itself is arguably the most distinct flag in the entire United States of America. Everything from the iconic emblem in the middle of the flag to the flag’s color scheme make it stand out from the others without standing apart from them.

Here is a brief history on how the Washington State flag came to be and what makes it unique from the other 49.

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Seal

You would be hard-pressed to argue that the most prominent part of the Washington state flag is anything but the portrait of George Washington. To emphasize its importance, Washington’s portrait is enclosed by a golden border that brandishes the year 1889. The picture of George Washington was, naturally, intended to pay homage to the first President of the United States, the man after whom the state was named.

Not only was featuring Washington’s picture on the flag a way of conveying its connection to the union as a whole, it also made the flag stand out as the only one in the United States to feature a president (or any person, for that matter).

Color

The color of a flag provides a backdrop for everything else. It’s essentially the canvas on which the picture is painted. The green field featured on the Washington state flag is intended to represent the state, which is known as the Evergreen State.

If you’ve ever driven through Washington, you know what an accurate nickname this is, as more often than not you find yourself surrounded by towering evergreens as you speed down the interstate. For most states, it would seem odd to base their flag’s color on a feature of its natural environment, but Washington’s forests give the state such a unique distinction that, in this case, it makes perfect sense.

Washington State Flag Design and History

Even though Washington entered the union in 1889, more than three decades passed before it had its own flag. In fact, it wasn’t until 25 years later, in 1914, when the Daughters of the American Revolution wanted Washington to provide a state flag which could be displayed in Washington, D.C., that it was noted the state still had not come up with a design for the flag.

Soon after, the Daughters of the American Revolution formed a committee that would come up with ideas and design the flag so that the capitol would have a flag to display to represent Washington. Finally, in 1923, Washington officially adopted the flag after a vote by the state legislature.

The seal of the Washington state flag was designed by the Talcott brothers, who were silversmiths. Besides serving as a tribute to America’s first president, George Washington’s image was also an unofficial oath that the citizens of the state would strive to embody his characteristics and principles. The green background represented not only the deep green forests in Washington, but also served as a declaration that Washington citizens would be committed to preserving their land and protecting their natural resources.

There have been many variations of the Washington state flag over the years, partly due to a fairly vague original description of it. Finally standardized in 1967, nearly a half-century after it was officially adopted, this is the flag that waves over Washington’s capital in Olympia and represents the state and those who live there to this very day.

In Conclusion

It’s fitting that Washington’s state flag has a picture of the state’s namesake right in its center, and just as fitting that the lush green on the flag is what can best be described as forest green. The only thing which is surprising is that Washington, one of the last states to join the union, was the first to give a nod to one of the Founding Fathers, a group of men who played such a significant role in our history.

A couple things are for certain – without them, our country would not have been as great as it was, and Washington State would not have come to be, and neither would its flag.

A Rattlesnake on the American Flag Instead of an Eagle?

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Was our country’s national symbol almost a poisonous reptile rather than the eagle we’ve all come to know and love? If Benjamin Franklin had his way, this may very well have been the case. In fact, Franklin didn’t even like the eagle, so much so that he believed the majestic bird of prey was “a bird of poor moral character.” The rattlesnake, on the other hand, was a fierce, but honorable creature, never attacking unless provoked and never surrendering unless a fight was over. 

An Early Symbol of National Identity

In 1754, Franklin sketched the image of a snake cut into eight sections, each one representing the individual colonies at the time. Under the snake was scrawled the words, “Join, or Die,” which were intended as an appeal to unity during the French and Indian War.

A snake chopped into several pieces may sound morbid, but the image stemmed from a well-known superstition of those days that was based on the belief that a snake that was sliced into pieces could rejoin the living if the body was put back together before sunset. As more newspapers printed this picture, the snake gradually became a symbol of national identity and pride.

Symbol of American Independence

The snake was used many times as Americans united over the years. In 1765, the British, in an attempt to pay off the debt they had incurred from the French and Indian War, started the Stamp Act. Many colonists believed that they had thrived despite the British government, not because of them, and, therefore, were not indebted to them.

The colonists soon became known as the “Sons of Liberty,” and the general public became more and more ready to revolt against the British. Once again, Franklin’s chopped-up snake reared its head and made its presence felt as a source of unity and, this time, independence.

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Don’t Tread on Me

The snake symbol eventually spread beyond the newspapers and, by 1775, it was on everything from paper money, to banners, to flags. During its ascent, the snake symbol changed significantly. Rather than being shown as a generic snake, it was now typically depicted as an American timber rattlesnake. Although historical accounts differ as to how and why the now-famous coiled rattlesnake came to represent our country on the Gadsden flag, the ominous and equally now-famous words, “Don’t Tread on Me” send a clear message to all who see it.

Back to Benjamin Franklin

“An American Guesser” anonymously wrote to the Pennsylvania Journal toward the end of 1775, noting that he had seen some drums belonging to Marines with the aforementioned snake accompanied with the same warning.

This anonymous writer went on to explain why a snake would be the ideal American symbol, noting that there were thirteen rattles on the snake, which equaled the number of colonies in America, also eloquently observing “how distinct and independent of each other the rattles of this animal are, how firmly they are united together” and how “one of those rattles, singly, is incapable of producing sound, but the ringing of thirteen together, is sufficient to alarm the boldest man alive.”

This anonymous writer is now widely believed to have been Benjamin Franklin due to his well-known fondness for the rattlesnake as a national symbol.

Why Is It Known as the Gadsden flag?

Franklin may have designed the original rattlesnake symbol, but the flag on which “Don’t Tread on Me” appears is not named after him. That honor was bestowed upon Colonel Christopher Gadsden. According to historical records, Gadsden presented one of these flags to Esek Hopkins, whom Gadsden had chosen as the Navy’s commander-in-chief. Gadsden soon made a copy of the flag and proposed to Congress that it should be the official standard of the head of the United States Navy.

Don’t Tread on Me

You could say that the Gadsden flag and its powerful mantra were initiated in 1776 when Commodore Hopkins proudly flew them when the Navy’s ships set out to sea for the first time in its now-storied history. The Gadsden flag has one of the more fascinating origins of any flag in the world. This flag is in large part distinguished by the message it bears so clearly: We value freedom, and if our freedom is threatened, we will do what is necessary to defend it. Of course, the flag says it much better and more simply.

The Revolutionary War Depicted in Flags

The birth of our nation occurred at a tumultuous time, amid battles, cannons, and a fight for freedom. Flags became a part of the scene to unite, inspire, and rally the colonists to win the war against the British so that all those living here in America could do so without tyranny or taxation without representation.

To have a better understanding of the Revolutionary War, and the role flags played in the unification of our country, we will be taking a look at the flags that have enriched our history with their own unique stories.

Cartoon turned flag, the Join or Die flag was a rallying standard which Benjamin Franklin originally created on wood in order to spur the colonies to unite. First used during the French and Indian War, then as a symbol of freedom in the Revolutionary War, this flag represented the thirteen colonies with a snake cut into eight pieces.

The head of the snake symbolized the whole of New England, followed by New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Franklin knew that the dream of a free nation would not survive unless the colonies united, much like a snake cut into pieces would surely die.

In keeping with the rattlesnake theme, the Gadsden flag was the first flag of the U.S. Marine Corps, commissioned in 1775. Depicting a rattlesnake with thirteen coils and the motto “Don’t tread on me,”it served as a warning to the British that America was not to be taken lightly or trivialized. In December of 1775, a letter was written by “An American Guesser” who historians now agree was Benjamin Franklin, and it was published by the Pennsylvania Journal:

“I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has
no eye-lids. She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance. She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shown and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal: Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her. Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?”

There is still some debate today as to whether or not the eagle should have been our nation’s symbol, and not the American Timber Rattlesnake, as Franklin deemed it so fitting for America.

Widely accepted as the first flag of America, the Grand Union flag is said to have been first raised in Charlestown, Massachusetts by George Washington’s army on New Year’s Day 1776.

Consisting of 13 stripes and the British Union Jack in the corner, it was to represent the Second Continental Congress which was now the recognized, de facto government of the colonies. Though it was only the flag for a short time (approximately a year), it was the first of our country and has a firm place in our history.

The Battle of Brandywine Creek was fought on September 11, 1777 and was the longest battle of the Revolutionary War, lasting 11 hours, with continuous fighting between the forces of British General, Sir William Howe and George Washington’s army.

It was the largest battle of the war; also, and because of these honors, there is a flag representing this battle which hangs today in Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park, though it was not a flag of George Washington’s army, but a militia banner representing Captain Robert Wilson’s Company, the 7th Pennsylvania Regiment.

Because there were no specific guidelines or flag regulations, it was made with 13 red stars and 13 red and white stripes, representing the colonies, and was the first flag with stars and stripes flown, according to some historians.

The oldest complete flag in our rich history is the Bedford flag. There are no records of who made it or when it was first used as a rallying standard; however, it can be loosely traced through the Page family history to the 1720s. It is most famously known as the flag that Nathaniel Page brought to the battle at North Ridge in Concord, Massachusetts, which is infamous as the first battle of the Revolutionary War.

The Page family has a long history of being the Cornet of the Troop of the horse, which is simply the standard bearer for the cavalry. It is believed that the Bedford flag was the inspiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s stanza in the poem Concord Hymn:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The flag is made from damask silk, depicting a mail-encased arm reaching out from the clouds holding a sword. The banner on the flag reads “Vince autMorire” which means “Conquer or Die”―an apt slogan for the period. The flag is still displayed at the Bedford Library in Massachusetts.

The Serapis flag has a unique and interesting story tied to it, involving U.S. Navy Captain John Paul Jones. In 1779 at the Battle of Flamborough Head, Jones captured the Serapis, a British frigate, but in the process his own ship the Bonhomme Richard sank.

He wanted to dock the foreign ship at the nearby port, Texel, which was controlled by the Dutch United Provinces. However, without a standard and sailing a captured ship, there was argument that he was a mere pirate.

So, hastily, with the description Ambassador Franklin had given the French of the U.S. flag (for international recognition), they made a standard that consisted of “thirteen stripes, alternately red, white, and blue; a small square in the upper angle, next to the flagstaff is a blue field with thirteen white stars, denoting a new constellation.” Hence, the Serapis flag was born.

History is not without controversy. During the Battle of Bennington, General John Stark’s militia, with reinforcements from Colonel Seth Warner and the Green Mountain Boys, fought valiantly against a detachment of General John Burgoyne’s regiment as part of the Saratoga campaign. While it may have been a minor defeat to the British, it led to a larger victory for the Patriots.

It is said that the Bennington flag was flown during this battle, named for the town in which it was fought, carried by Stark’s men. However, there is much evidence to suggest that the flag once thought to have been at this battle was actually made for either the 50th or Centennial celebration of our nation’s birth.

The Moultrie flag was made famous from the decisive battle fought in South Carolina, where Colonel William Moultrie defended Sullivan’s Island from the British fleet and resulted in a resounding victory for the 2nd South Carolina Regiment. The battle saved Charleston, turning the British fleet on its heels.

Moultrie commissioned the flag in advance of the war with the British, knowing he would need a rallying standard under which his men could gather. During the battle, the flag was shot off its post, and, in a daringly brave move, Sergeant William Jasper ran out in the open to grab it and re-hoisted the flag until a new post could be had. This act of bravery, along with the victorious win, made the Moultrie flag part of our rich history and the hearts of South Carolinians.

The Battle of Cowpens was a turning point in the war for the Americans. With a stalemate in the north, the British had turned their focus south in hopes of gathering support from Loyalists and planned to use them against the colonists still fighting for freedom.

Initially, their plan seemed to work. Then Washington put Major General Nathanael Greene in charge of the campaign in the Carolinas. The series of battles that ensued began to turn the tide of war in favor of the colonists.

Initially, their plan seemed to work. Then Washington put Major General Nathanael Greene in charge of the campaign in the Carolinas. The series of battles that ensued began to turn the tide of war in favor of the colonists.

Carrying on the victory wave, Major General Greene faced the seasoned forces of Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis on the steps of the Guilford Courthouse. The British lost significant troops in against Greene, and he had underestimated the will of the colonists.

This battle was the pivotal engagement of the Revolutionary War, as it sent Cornwallis out of the Carolinas up to Virginia, where he fought and lost at Yorktown and surrendered to Washington after the final battle of the war.

This battle was the pivotal engagement of the Revolutionary War, as it sent Cornwallis out of the Carolinas up to Virginia, where he fought and lost at Yorktown and surrendered to Washington after the final battle of the war.

Charles James Fox, a British statesman, said of the battle, “Another such victory would ruin the British Army.” The flag is unique, as the stripes are red and blue instead of the standard red and white. It was never intended to be a national flag, but a regimental flag, and now is a reminder of the incredible victory that changed our nation’s course in the Revolutionary War.

At the close of the war, after the Treaty of Paris had been signed on September 3, 1783, Washington and the citizens of the United States waited for the British to disassemble seven years’ worth of infrastructure and military encampments from New York. It was no small feat, and was finally completed on November 25th.

The celebration, known as Evacuation Day, was planned to commence once the last British ship sailed from the coastline, with a procession through the city which would end at Fort George, where the British flag would be taken down and the American flag would be hoisted in its place.

The British had one last move to make, which served as a parting practical joke. They had removed the halyard of the Union Jack flying over Fort George and greased the flag pole.

When the Americans went to take the British standard down, they realized what the freshly departed soldiers had done.Fearful of Washington’s procession arriving while the Union Jack was still in the air, they tried every way possible to take the flag down, short of cutting down the flag pole. Well, Washington’s procession arrived, and there the British flag flapped in the breeze.

A young sergeant from New York, John Van Arsdale, with help from a run to the local hardware store, climbed the pole while nailing cleats in as he went to get to the flag. With Washington looking on, Arsdale got close enough to grasp the flag and tear it down, with cheers and roaring from the crowd below: Such an end to a hard fought war for freedom, showing the true spirit for which we Americans are known for today.

Flags of… Antarctica?

In the land of penguins and orca, with a population of 135 permanent residents, Antarctica is a unique place on Earth. There is no official flag of Antarctica since it is not a country nor governed by any authority.

However, there is a caveat to that as Antarctica is a de facto condominium, governed by parties to the Antarctic Treaty System that have consulting status. Twelve countries signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, and thirty-eight have signed it since then. The treaty prohibits military activities and mineral mining, prohibits nuclear explosions and nuclear waste disposal, supports scientific research, and protects the continent’s ecozone. Ongoing experiments are conducted by more than 4,000 scientists from many nations, primarily in its summertime.

Seven countries lay claim to a part of Antarctica, known as “territories,” which basically allows a country to do experiments provided they follow the regulations of the Antarctic Treaty System. Britain holds the British Antarctic Territory (yes, such an original name!) and New Zealand holds the Ross Dependency. France claims Adelie Land, named for the penguins there. Norway holds Peter I Island and Queen Maud Land. Australia, Chile, and Argentina also have stakes in the land of Antarctica.

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In 2002, a flag was approved by the Antarctic Treaty Organization and is being used as an informal ensign of the continent. Many other designs for the flag have been suggested and are currently under consideration. The designs suggested by Whitney Smith and Graham Bartram are the most eminent designs.

The Graham Bartram design uses the flag of the United Nations as its base pattern. It is a simple white map of Antarctica on a blue setting. The map essentially represents the continent’s nonaligned status.

The Graham Bertram Flag was first hoisted on the continent in 2002. When he planned the ensign, Bertram was cognizant of the converging territorial demands of Chile, the United Kingdom, and Argentina. This version is probably the most famous design for the continent, proven by its wide presence on the web.

On the other hand, the Whitney Smith design applies the orange color as the setting for the flag because of the high visibility factor. This unique symbol comprises many constituents. “A” represents Antarctica and the lower part of the earth symbolizes the continent’s position on the planet.

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At the same time, two hands gripping the lower portion of the globe symbolize a nonviolent human role. The white shade of the symbol stands for the ice and snow of the continent. There are very few instances where this design has been used, but it seems to be the one that is most closely associated with Antarctica.

Flags are used for various reasons, most importantly to unite people with a feeling of belonging and patriotism. For Antarctica, it seems the flag is more of a symbol of conservation and scientific exploration, so does that make it any less important?

Since not many people live on Antarctica, and it is not a sovereign nation, it makes sense that they don’t have an official flag. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for humanity as a whole as we become more populated; perhaps Antarctica might begin to look appealing to more people.

The Bear on the California State Flag

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The California state flag is something of an oddity even among the peculiar field of its fellows. It’s not the only one with a star; not even the only one with a single star. It’s not the only one with an animal: Several other states feature an eagle or two on their flags; Michigan has a pair of deer flanking its seal, Pennsylvania has a pair of horses, Missouri has a pair of bears itself. But that’s clearly symbolism derived from heraldry, and therefore those flags can get away with it by a simple nod to historical precedent. It’s not even that it doesn’t have any blue in it; neither do those of New Mexico, Alabama, nor Maryland, and they seem to be fine with it.

No, the California state flag has a whopping big bear taking up most of its face, meandering toward a single star in the upper hoist side, striding over a red stripe on the bottom of the flag. It’s definitely a bold choice. The only other flags that approach it are probably the Wyoming flag, with an outlined bison containing the state seal, and the Oregon flag, with a single large beaver sitting quietly on the obverse side, and even those are stylized, clearly harmless, and representative beasts, not looking for trouble. Not so the California bear.

In 1846, California was a Mexican territory, and there was the threat that Mexico and the United States of America were going to go to war. A group of settlers in the area decided that if it came to that, they were going to go with America. In fact, they decided not to wait, and went ahead and seized the city of Sonoma themselves.

Of course, they needed a flag to represent the new Republic of California, so they asked one of the settlers, one William “I’m Abraham Lincoln’s Wife’s Nephew” Todd to design it. He took a scrap of brown cloth and some brownish paint (or blackberry juice) and painted a crude representation of a bear heading toward a star. The bear represented strength and power as the biggest, baddest predator on the continent, and the star was reminiscent of Texas’s Lone Star. The combination was entirely meant to strike fear into the Mexican government, and to impress them with the seriousness of the situation.

This was the rough settler equivalent of declaring your house an independent state, then electing a shark mayor and inviting people to debate it via fisticuffs, which made it a little anticlimactic when the settlers found out within a month that the United States and Mexico were already at war. At that point, they replaced the Bear Flag with the Stars and Stripes, and California became an official state a few years later. In 1911, they adopted an updated version of the flag as the state flag.

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The new flag needed a bear front and center, and hopefully one that looked more like a bear and less like a suckling pig this time. The designers wanted to use an actual bear as reference, but the California golden bear was almost extinct in the area. Luckily, twelve years prior, William Randolph Hearst had begun performing his famous publicity stunts, and one of his first was to bring a live California golden grizzly to San Francisco.

He sent Allen Kelly, a reporter with no hunting experience, to fetch one, and, to everyone’s astonishment, after several months and several close calls, he succeeded. At 1200 pounds, Monarch was the largest bear ever kept in captivity; some sources (well, Hearst) claimed that 20,000 people showed up to see him brought in.

After a few years, though, the novelty wore thin, and Monarch died in 1911. His skeleton was mounted and donated to the Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, and his pelt was stuffed and donated to the California Academy of Sciences. It was here that the illustrators were able to make detailed sketches and convert the image to the mighty representation now adorning the state flag.

Some state flags are clearly just placeholders until something interesting happens. Fortunately, California seems to have had that covered for over a hundred years.

Does your own state flag have as interesting a history? Keep an eye out for future explorations; perhaps you’ll find out soon!

The European Union Flag

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Technically, it’s not a flag.

It sure looks like one, doesn’t it? Well, it’s actually an emblem, suitable for displaying on a rectangular piece of cloth, according to the designer. So … that sounds like one, too, doesn’t it? Yes, except that the various members of the European Union were always concerned about losing their individual identities as nations and having their flags replaced. Which seems, honestly, exactly like what a union of member states ought to be doing, right? But in order to assuage such fears, the emblem is referred to as something that specifically is not a flag, so that can’t happen now.

Except that it pretty much has, even if it isn’t made out to be a big deal. The EU emblem is in flag form pretty much anywhere you want to look for it. It flies over the member countries’ capital cities; it flies over the United Nations; it shows up in sporting events; and everyone who isn’t a member country thinks of it as a flag, and everything’s fine.

And everything is fine with it, largely because there’s nothing that can be wrong with it. The entire emblem’s design and genesis is so softly rounded that there’s no danger of anyone being angered or offended by it. It means nothing and stands for nothing, really. Let’s look briefly at its history; it’s much older than you may have realized.

Designed for the Council of Europe after World War II, the emblem was the culmination of several attempts to make a symbol that wouldn’t offend any of the member countries. Previous attempts had included:

A red cross in a yellow circle on a blue background, which was rejected because Turkey, one of the fifteen member countries, objected to the cross as a de facto Christian symbol.

  • A giant green capital letter E on a white background, which was rejected originally because it was a giant red E, and, when the wind wasn’t blowing, it looked pretty much like a Communist flag; then later was rejected because it was a terrible idea, and looked terrible, and made everyone feel dumber just for having agreed to look at it.
  • A circle of eight linked white rings on a blue background, which was rejected for looking like too many other possible things, including the number zero or a chain.
  • A single yellow star on a blue background, which was rejected for basically being the existing flag of the Belgian Congo.
  • An abstract representation of the capital cities of the member nations on a blue background, as stars in their appropriate areas, with no country outlines, which was rejected for being a little too abstract.

Plus a number of others that were never even going to make it all the way to the rejection stage. But Paul Levy was walking through Brussels one day in 1955 and saw a halo of stars surrounding the head of a statue of the Virgin Mary, and suggested to Léon Marchal, the designer, that he propose a circle of fifteen stars for the emblem, or so the story goes; there are several variants of this origin circulating, not all of which can agree on who saw the statue.

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The blue background is primarily simply a compromise because no other major flag was using a predominantly blue background (although the United Nations flag is blue and some sites claim that “blue is … traditionally the color of the European continent”). There were originally fifteen stars in the circle, but Germany was concerned that if one of the stars represented the Saarland, the tiny, disputed strip of land between France and Germany, it would start to think of itself as an country and not part of Germany, and thus would never return like it was supposed to, as soon as it got sick of France.

As a consequence of this, if there were only fourteen stars, that meant that the Saarland wasn’t getting a star, and so they would veto the new proposal. Thirteen was straight out, since superstition was apparently still dominating world decisions. Twelve, however, was a number with so many possible meanings that it couldn’t possibly be taken poorly: if you didn’t like one interpretation of the twelve stars, you could come up with one you did like in short order.

Then, after all that, nobody even really used the emblem until over thirty years later, when the European Economic Community teamed up with the Council of Europe to start to evolve into what we think of as the European Union. But you can’t really call it a flag. That’s something we can all agree on.

Declaring Our Independence

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Did you know that a majority of the colonists felt that declaring independence from the British was a radical idea? Men like Jefferson, Franklin, and the rest of our forefathers were considered radical thinkers for their vision of a free, independent United States of America. So, how did the political climate change to the point men and women picked up arms against the red coats?

First, it is important to understand how the American colonies came to be in the first place. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain was expanding their empire. Colonists came to America and first settled in Virginia in 1607, and the Pilgrims arrived just thirteen years later to New England. Coming here wasn’t initially a bold move for freedom but an economic expansion of the British Empire.

Of course there were many benefits for the colonists who wanted out of Europe and to embark on an adventurous life. Largely, the British ignored the colonies and didn’t spend much time, energy, or money supporting them. The colonists were pretty much free to do as they pleased, emulating the parts of English life they liked and changing what they didn’t.

Until the mid-eighteenth century, the colonists barely heard a boo from Britain. As France rose in power, challenging the British economically and politically, wars began sprouting between the two. From India to Europe, and on to North America, the British and French were fighting across the globe. These wars were costly to the British Empire, and they needed a way to refill their coffers.

Here’s where the colonists enter. For over 100 years, the colonists had lived in relative peace, dealing with the occasional issues with Native Americans or the British and French fighting on their doorstep. Now it was time for the colonists to help them fund the wars they were fighting with the French. The British monarchy tried taxing the Americans various ways, and each time the colonists refused to pay.

Because the British sought to impose a more firm rule, including taxing them wherever they could, the colonists began to sway toward the more radical thinkers. By the time the first shot was fired on Lexington Green in April 1775, the colonists were fed up and wanted freedom so badly they were willing to fight to the death for it. The Revolutionary mindset was spreading, and the proof was in Thomas Paine’s publishing of Common Sense in early 1776.

“These proceedings may at first seem strange and difficult, but like all other steps which we have already passed over, will in a little time become familiar and agreeable; and until an independence is declared, the Continent will feel itself like a man who continues putting off some unpleasant business from day to day, yet knows it must be done, hates to set about it, wishes it over, and is continually haunted with the thoughts of its necessity. “

~Common Sense, Thomas Paine (sold over 100,000 copies in three months after it was published)

On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted and declared independence from England. That day was so profound, John Adams wrote to his wife saying, “will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival” and that the celebration should include “Pomp and Parade … Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.” It wasn’t until two days later that Jefferson and the rest of our founding fathers signed the final draft of the Declaration of Independence.

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While Adams was right about the celebrations, he was off on the day. We celebrate July 4th as our nation’s Independence Day because that is the day the declaration was signed, truly making it official. Jefferson was charged with writing the declaration and took a mere two days to write it. The document itself is of critical importance to the birth of our nation in that it defines our basic principles of American democracy which we follow today, 240 years later.

The men who signed the Declaration may have been considered radicals, but they feared for their lives once they signed it, for it was the ultimate act of rebellion. We celebrate our Independence Day today because there were men brave enough to stand up for the rights of the people. It is the day our nation’s flag, the Stars and Stripes, flew over a free, sovereign nation born of a radical vision and revolution.