Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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FLAG, The (IN U.S. HISTORY). I. COLONIAL. While the colonies were a part of the British empire, their recognized standard was naturally that of Great Britain, and, though minor modifications were sometimes made, the retention of the "union" with its two crosses of St. Andrew and St. George, marked all of them as essentially British. The "Confederacy of 1643" (see NEW ENGLAND UNION.) had a distinctive flag, but not till 1686. It consisted of a large upright red cross on a white ground, with the royal crown and cipher in the centre in gold. The sea flag was red, with a white "union", bearing an upright red cross, and in the upper left hand corner of the union a green pine tree. But, all through the colonial period, the real looseness of dependence on Great Britain was marked by a growing disposition to the use of individual colonial flags. Unfortunately there are but scant contemporary references to them, but such as exist will be found collected, with illustrations, in Preble's history, as cited among the authorities. It is certain that the Connecticut troops in 1775 had their own standard, with the colony's motto Qui transtulit sustinet. The standard of New York was marked by a black beaver; but probably all had the British union in some form, since the colonists at first claimed to be loyal subjects of the king, resisting the usurpations of parliament and the ministry. It is very doubtful whether there was any flag in the American lines at Bunker Hill; certainly none was captured by the British. One tradition is that there was a red flag, with the legend, Come if you dare; another that the legend was An Appeal to Heaven; and another that the flag was blue with a white union, containing the upright red cross and the pine tree.


—After the breaking out of hostilities, congress made no effort to fix upon a national standard; indeed the growth and development of a national standard was as natural as that of the nation itself. At first captains of privateers and military commanders generally followed their own fancy in the adoption of a flag, or used the state standard. The varying results may be divided into two classes, "Pinetree flags" and "rattlesnake flags," the former being rather of a New England nature, while the latter had some approach to nationality. The former was generally white, with a green pine tree in the centre, and the legend An Appeal to Heaven; this was formally adopted by the Massachusetts legislature in April, 1776, but the London newspapers, three months before that time, mention the capture of a similar flag on a privateer. The rattlesnake flag was also white, with a rattlesnake, either cut into thirteen pieces, each marked with the initial of a colony, and the legend Join, or die, below, or complete and coiled, with the legend Don't tread on me; another variety, later than the former, had a ground of thirteen stripes, red and white, with the rattlesnake extended across the field. A less common flag consisted of a white ground on which was depicted a mailed hand grasping thirteen arrows.


—II. NATIONAL. Toward the end of 1775 the urgent need of a distinct national flag became very evident. The stripes seem first to have been used by a Philadelphia light horse troop in 1774-5, but only as a "union" Their use as the ground of a flag, originally suggested by the recognized flags of the East India company or of Holland, had been familiarized by one variety of the rattlesnake ensign; and congress adopted it, in December, 1775, on the recommendation of a committee consisting of Franklin, Lynch and Harrison. The "grand union" flag now consisted of thirteen stripes, as at present, but with the British "union" of two crosses to mark continued allegiance to the king. This flag was first hoisted over the American headquarters at Cambridge, Massachusetts, Jan. 1 or 2, 1776. Paul Jones claims to have first raised it over his ship, the Alfred, some days previously; but his flag seems to have been the stripes and rattlesnake. Preble, in his history, has given a copy of a water-color drawing of the "grand union flag" in July, 1776, found by Dr. B. J. Lossing among the papers of Gen. Philip Schuyler, which is the most satisfactory contemporary representation. It is noteworthy, however, that when the naval committee of congress presented a national flag to that body Feb. 8, 1776, they chose one of the rattlesnake variety.


—In June, 1776, when independence had become a recognized probability, Washington and a committee of congress made informal arrangements for the substitution of a five-pointed star in the union. It was not until June 14, 1777, that congress formally ordered the royal union to be displaced by thirteen stars, as at present, symbolical of "a new constellation.". The new flag was probably first used at the battle of the Brandywine, Sept. 11, 1777; and its introduction in Lentze's picture is an anachronism.


—No change took place in the national flag until, by the act of Jan. 13, 1794, two new stripes, as well as two new stars, were added for Vermont and Kentucky. No further change took place for twenty-four years, even after the admissions of Ohio and Louisiana; and the war of 1812 was fought under a flag of fifteen stripes and stars. The impropriety of considering Kentucky and Vermont a part of the "old thirteen," and the cumbrousness of a flag with a new stripe for each new state, occasioned the passage of the act of April 4, 1818, by which the stripes were to be limited to thirteen in future, in memory of the thirteen states which had first secured for the flag a place among national emblems, while the number of stars should show the number of states in the Union on the 4th July, the day on which changes were to be made. Unfortunately the act neglected to fix the arrangement of the stars in the union, which has been very capricious, sometimes in straight lines, sometimes in a star, sometimes in concentric circles, and sometimes scattered at random.


—The features of the national flag may be thus summarized 1777-94, thirteen stripes and thirteen stars (generally in a circle); 1794-1818, fifteen stripes and fifteen stars (generally in three straight lines); 1818-82, thirteen stripes and from twenty to thirty-eight stars. (See CONSTITUTION, I.)


—The revenue flag, by act of March 2, 1799, and the circular of the secretary of the treasury, Aug. 1, consisted of sixteen perpendicular red and white stripes, with the arms of the United States in blue on a white field as a union. This was changed in 1871 by substituting thirteen blue stars on a white ground as a union.


—In addition to the national flag each state has its own flag, which is hoisted on its public buildings, or carried into battle or on parade by its volunteers, or militia, alongside of the national standard. These flags are too numerous for special mention.


—III. CONFEDERATE. During the war of the rebellion the confederate states' forces carried the so-called "stars and bars," a flag consisting of three red and white stripes, the white in the middle, and a blue union with as many white stars as there were states in the confederacy. The more familiar battle flag was of red, traversed from the corners by a blue cross with white stars. Toward the end of the rebellion the three stripes were dropped for a flag half red and half white, the white nearest the staff; and some ineffectual efforts were made to further change it to a flag wholly or partially black. Individual states had also their own flags.


—See 8 Bancroft's United States, 232; 3 Hildreth's United States, 177; 1 Journals of Congress, 165 (resolution of June 14, 1777); 1 Stat. at Large (Bioren and Duane's edit.), 678; 1 Stat. at Large, 341, 699 and 3:415 (acts of Jan. 13, 1794, March 2, 1799, and April 4, 1818; Hamilton's History of the American Flag(1852); Preble's History of the American Flag (1872).


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