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.

Fourth of July: What Were the Actual Events of That Fateful Day?

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The events leading up to July 4, 1776 are well documented in U.S. history books and historical documents, and almost every American will tell you that we became a free nation on the Fourth. Technically, that’s not entirely true.

The British imposed the Tea Act of 1773, which set everything in motion. Up to that point, the settlers who had come to America were impartial to the rule of their prior homeland. Essentially, the Tea Act was an effort to save the East India Company by lowering their tax rate and giving them a monopoly on the tea trade in the Americas.

Outraged, the colonists revolted by tossing eighteen thousand pounds of tea into Boston Harbor, known as the Boston Tea Party. This angered the British so much they put Boston under military rule. So, not only did they try to enforce tax tyranny, but punished the colonists by closing the city to merchants.

Imagine what our history would look like had the British not drawn up the Tea Act?

Of course, this led to the fateful day of April 19, 1775 when the first shots were fired on the Lexington green. Thus began the Revolutionary War in which the colonists fought for their freedom. They wanted freedom from tyranny and religious persecution, with a burning desire to lead a life in which one could pursue happiness in whatever manner they deemed fit.

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After fighting for fourteen months, the Continental Congress declared independence on July 2, 1776. Yes, you read that right: July 2nd, not the 4th. Some think the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th, when in fact it was signed on August 2nd. Thomas Jefferson wrote the draft in June of 1776.

So, what did actually happen on July 4th? That was the day that the final draft of the Declaration of Independence was accepted by the Continental Congress. It was a document that was created in an effort to communicate to the colonists, the British, and to the whole world that this nation would become and exist as a free land.

Our forefathers saw America as a land where government was decided by the people, for the people. Thomas Jefferson put pen to paper and elegantly wrote the words that sent a wave around the world, striking a chord in the heart of every revolutionary and every monarch:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.”

The Declaration of Independence was our forefathers way of sharing their vision in creating a nation where the people ruled the government, not the other way around. When you look at all the Amendments, the Bill of Rights … it is clear that the goal was to create a country in which every man was equal, just as he is in the eyes of God.

How far we have strayed from that ideal today.

Jefferson also wrote, “I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”

So, this Fourth of July, when you enjoy your hot dogs and cheeseburgers under the American flag while watching the spectacular fireworks in your home town, remember why we are celebrating the birth of our nation and how it came to be. Remember the vision our forefathers had: living in a nation where you are free to speak your mind without fear of government retribution, to do as you please within the confines of the law.

And remember… our forefathers would never trade liberty for security. In the famous words of Patrick Henry in 1775: “Give me Liberty or give me death!”

History of the Union Jack

Union_flag_1606_(Kings_Colors).svgFor a small set of islands of the Northwest coast of Europe, with a total landmass not much greater than that of Utah, the peoples of the United Kingdom have had a profound impact on the history of the modern world. In the 19th century it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire, as its reach spread vastly overseas with conquests and colonies spanning the globe. It would not be a stretch to say then that during this time the flag of the United Kingdom, the Union Jack, was the most recognizable flag in the world.

The Union Jack, though, has its own history, and has undergone a series of evolutions that mirror the history and evolution – often contentious, always fascinating – of the nation(s) it represents.

Although the influence of the Empire, now a Commonwealth of Nations, has lessened over time, the Union Jack is still known and flown around the world. In fact, not only is it the flag of the United Kingdom, but its image is also used as part of other flags around the globe, from other national and territorial flags (Australia, New Zealand, Bermuda, etc.), to Canadian provinces (British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario), and even towns in the United States (Taunton, Massachusetts and Baton Rouge, Louisiana).

The Cross of St. George

This simple design, a red cross on a white background, would have an intensely complex impact around the world. Initially used to identify the Knights Templar, and hearkening to the Second Crusade, the Cross of St. George symbolized what it was to be a warrior and a knight.

St. George himself has a vast array of lore associated with him. Whether your tastes run to last minute rescues on the battlefield, or defeating dragons and liberating maidens, there’s something to inspire you – or at least capture your imagination.

England adopted this symbol informally as a way for English soldiers to identify each other upon the field of battle. Within a hundred years, St. George was adopted as England’s patron saint, and the red-on-white design was firmly entrenched in English culture.

Queen Elizabeth I Passes the Crown: Scotland Joins

Though arguably a cunning leader and undoubtedly inspiring, Queen Elizabeth I left a tangled problem after her death in 1603: no heir. Instead, the crown passed to her cousin, King James VI of Scotland. This was at first just a personal connection, not  necessarily a political one (much like having the same math teacher, but at different times of day). But, by 1606, James VI, now King James I of England, consolidated his rule and ordered a combined flag to be commissioned. In it, the red-on-white Cross of St. George would be counterposed on top of the blue-and-white saltire (that’s heraldic speak for “x-shaped cross”) of Scotland’s St. Andrew. The Great Union Flag, as it was called in the beginning, would fly unchanged for 200 years until its next major evolution.

There is some irregularity as to when the name “Union Jack” became standardized, and what actually constituted a Union Jack. Part of the problem stems from the fact that a nautical bow flag is known as a “jack.” It was known for some time rather formally as “His Majesty’s Jack,” but, by 1674, the name had stuck quite firmly. What is known is that the name stems from a small pun: Jack being a shortened form of Jacobus (Latin for James), and therefore referencing His Majesty King James I forevermore in the banner.

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An Alternate Union: The Scots Weigh In

Some controversy did arise when the first Union Flag was adopted. The Scots were not pleased to be joined with the English; they were also not particularly happy that the Cross of St. George got slapped over top of their Cross of St. Andrew. 

After all, both countries were united under a Scottish king. Why should the English get precedence? In this light, an alternative flag was proposed, with the Scots’ white Saltire Cross overlaying the red of St. George. Though never officially used, it remains an interesting footnote in the history of things that could have happened, and was occasionally spotted flying in unofficial capacity over private Scottish vessels.

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The Cross of St. Patrick and Ireland

In 1801 Ireland was fused politically to England and Scotland to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. St. Patrick’s red-on-white saltire would be added to the overall design. This addition made it possible to now fly the Union Jack upside down, but the difference is so subtle that it often slips by in some official capacities. This is the Union Jack so very familiar to us all, and the one associated with so much daring, exploration, military conquest, and colonization.

King George III ushered this flag upon the global stage during his time upon the throne. During his lengthy reign, the Union Jack would mark the British as they engaged in military conquests and conflicts. This was also the flag and the king that the United States of America would eventually rebel against and secede from during the American Revolutionary War.

Modern Usage

While being less warlike than in previous centuries, the presentation of the Union Jack has become a common theme in popular culture. From the mid-1960s the British Invasion of music would bring the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones, and the Union Jack into just about every home in America. Today, the Union Jack might be one of the most popular designs to be incorporated into products, from t-shirts and jackets, to household linens and beachwear.

A Last Note

Even though the United Kingdom is a very modern country now, its flag (and all other flags) are still described in ancient heraldic convention. It’s practically a language in and of itself. So, with the clues that blue=azure, white=argent, and red=gules, the official description of the Union Jack goes as follows:

‘Blazoned: Azure, the Crosses Satire of St. Andrew and St. Patrick, quarterly per Saltire, counterchanged Argent and Gules, the latter fimbriated of the second, surmounted by the Cross of St. George of the third, fimbriated as the Saltire.’

Pretty peculiar sounding, isn’t it? But much like the British Empire itself, the flag and its description encapsulate a much larger concept, and one that continues to impact the modern world.

Join or Die: The Flag That United the Colonial Settlers

1280px-Benjamin_Franklin_-_Join_or_DieBefore the American Revolution, the political temperature throughout the world was shaky all around. France and Britain were in competition to be the most powerful nation in the world, the American Colonies were still settling into their new homelands, deciding if they should expand west or finally organize a revolution to throw off British rule.

The French claimed the entire Mississippi basin extending from the Gulf of Mexico into Canada. Britain and France had long debated over the borders of their territories in the Americas. Austria changed allegiances, Prussia was backing Britain … everything was changing.

At the same time, Benjamin Franklin was getting concerned about future of the colonies. He realized how disorganized they were and just how powerful they could be if they united as one voice, one military and political force. Each of the colonies had been going in their own direction, drifting further apart. On May 9, 1754, the Pennsylvania Gazette printed the first political cartoon ever printed in the U.S., created by Franklin.

The flag depicted a snake in segments, each labeled for the colonies, with New England representing one section, and the remaining 7 pieces in order of how they are positioned on the coastline. (See image on the right).

The cartoon was originally done on wood, then printed. Interestingly enough, if you look at the shape of the snake, it loosely represents the eastern coastline. It is considered a “cartographic cartoon” because of this, which was again the first of its time.

The reason he had the snake in pieces was to represent the separation and drifting apart of the colonies. Just as a snake would die if it was in pieces, the same would happen to the colonies if they didn’t unite. In the 18th century, it was a commonly held belief that if you buried the pieces of a snake before sunset, it would reconnect and become whole the next dawn. Franklin wanted to unite the colonies before that happened.

His cartoon became a rallying standard for the colonies in the French and Indian War. It served as an inspiration for unity and turned their focus on to battling a common enemy. In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, the slogan was used to unite the colonies with the British, to the point that they passed the Stamp Act in 1765 which was a tax the colonists paid to the crown for every printed piece of paper.

Once the colonists were united, the Join or Die flag became a standard for freedom. The Revolutionary War saw many flags, battle cries, and other inspiring propaganda, but Franklin’s Join or Die snake cartoon was by far the most widely recognized and inspiring of all of them.

Throughout our nation’s history, the Join or Die slogan and flag have resurfaced at various points. The North used it in the Civil War to promote unity of the states. Even in the 2000 election, the Republicans used it to push for party unity. It just proves that Franklin knew how to tap into the American hearts and psyche with his clever depiction, and that kind of propaganda lasts as long as the country stands united.