Flags and banners are believed to have originated in China about 3,000 years ago and were probably introduced to Europe by the Saracens during the Middle Ages. Early flags were used primarily in warfare. Some identified royalty and other rulers, some identified individual warriors and military units, and some identified nations. Some were for signaling and some were simply decorative.
Personal and royal flags were used to mark the location of important individuals. Today that use is continued by the personal flags of the President and flag rank military officers. Before the advent of rapid battlefield communications, unit flags and banners allowed combat commanders to keep track of units engaged and the progress of the battle. By far the most extensive use of flags was to identify the national origin of ships at sea.
In early days you could not go to a store and buy a flag. They were made by hand one at a time, usually by Sail Makers or Upholsterers. Militia flags were often made by local seamstresses. Hand making led to wide variations in design
Many flags were used in early America by militia units, political and religious organizations, and British governing bodies and military. Colonial merchant vessels flew the British ensign until the Revolutionary War. Hostilities broke out before the Declaration of Independence and local militia flags were flown by the Americans in those battles. Even after the Declaration, it was almost a year before Congress passed the first major flag act.
I won’t discuss the development of the “Stars and Stripes” in this article. Instead, I will discuss three of the many early flag symbols that are still very recognizable. They are the Benjamin Franklin “Join or Die” Albany Conference banner, the “Gadsden Flag” and the “Pine Tree Flag.”
Early and uniquely American symbols of the colonies were the bald eagle and the Native American. The rattlesnake symbol was added in 1751 when Franklin suggested “thanking” the British for sending convicted criminals to the colonies by sending a “cargo of rattlesnakes” back to the British.
During the French and Indian War, Ben Franklin presented a plan to unite the colonies at the 1754 Albany Conference. His proposal was unsuccessful, but the symbol he used for it was a woodcut of a rattlesnake cut into eight sections representing New England and the other colonies with the caption “Join or Die.” Franklin published this image in his newspaper, which was the first political cartoon to appear in any American newspaper. His woodcut has been reprinted in many American publications.
Symbols to rally around became more important as the colonists moved towards complete revolution. By the 1770’s, a complete snake, usually a rattlesnake, was being used on uniform buttons, on paper money, and on flags and banners. A rattlesnake still appears on some modern US Army seals and emblems. It has been in continuous use by the Army for more than 240 years.
In December 1775, “An American Guesser” (Probably Benjamin Franklin) wrote to the Pennsylvania Journal explaining why a snake should be used as a symbol for America. It is too long for this article but should be an enjoyable read for those interested. It is a great example of Franklin’s humor, writing style, and logic. (Remember, Ben wanted the turkey to be our national bird instead of the bald eagle.)
Hostilities against the British began with the Battles of Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775, and by the fall of 1775, the British had occupied Boston. The young Continental Army was encamped near Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Americans were short of all military supplies, especially gunpowder.
Late in 1775, word reached Philadelphia that British ships were enroute to America with military supplies, including arms and gunpowder for the British Army. It was decided that Washington needed the supplies more than the British and a plan was made to capture them at sea. General Washington established the Continental Navy starting with seven ships (known as “Washington’s cruisers”) with orders to intercept and seize the British ships, and the mission was a success.
Five companies of Marines were also organized to serve on these ships. The Marines that enlisted in Philadelphia carried drums painted yellow, emblazoned with a coiled ready to strike rattlesnake with 13 rattles. Below the snake was the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.” This was the first known use of this symbolism.
At this point Christopher Gadsden became involved in the naval preparations. Gadsden was a patriot who in 1765 led the Sons of Liberty in his home of South Carolina. In 1775 he became a Colonel in the Continental Army and was also elected to the Continental Congress. He served on the Marine Committee which was responsible for outfitting the new navy ships for their mission. There was no national flag because there was no nation yet, so the ships were to fly the Pine Tree Flag.
Congress selected Esek Hopkins of Rhode Island to be the first commander-in-chief of the Navy. Before the small fleet’s departure Colonel Gadsden presented Commodore Hopkins with a flag to serve as Hopkin’s personal ensign to be flown on his flagship. The flag was yellow and displayed the coiled rattlesnake with 13 rattles. The motto “Don’t Tread on Me” appeared below the snake.
Colonel Gadsden also presented a copy of this flag to the Congress of South Carolina in Charleston. The 9 February 1776 congressional journal states:
“Col. Gadsden presented to the Congress an elegant standard, such as is to be used by the commander in chief of the American Navy; being a yellow field, with a lively representation of a rattlesnake in the middle in the attitude of going to strike and these words underneath, “Don’t tread on me.”
This flag became known as the Gadsden Flag. The coiled rattlesnake and motto became extremely popular and appeared on many other flags, banners, and publications throughout the Revolution.
The Gadsden Flag was replaced by the Stars and Stripes, but is still being used by government, individuals, and patriotic groups. Its use and popularity have waxed and waned over the years but today the Gadsden Flag is widely displayed all over the USA. To many Americans the coiled ready to strike rattlesnake symbolizes individual freedom, strength, defiance, and danger.
Currently the Gadsden Flag can be seen on license plates, T-shirts, decals and being flown from flag poles. It is displayed primarily by individuals and organizations that are making political statements, although the symbolism is sometimes used by government. It has become mostly a symbol for gun rights, patriotism, individual liberty, and protest of government overreach. Although usually identified with right-wing causes, it has occasionally been adopted by more left-wing groups that are pushing for their civil liberties.
The Pine Tree Flag (or Appeal to Heaven Flag) was another popular flag used by the colonists during the Revolution, particularly by New England militia units. The pine tree had been a symbol in New England since the late 16th century before the arrival of colonists.
The tree’s symbolism began when the leaders of the five Indian nations (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk) ended decades of war by burying their weapons beneath a tree planted at Onondaga by the founder of the Iroquois Confederacy. The “Tree of Peace” is featured in the center of the Iroquois national belt.
New England’s stately eastern white pines were perfect for ship’s masts and were a mainstay of colonial shipbuilding. The British attempted to control the harvesting of these trees through the 1691 Massachusetts Charter but the colonists usually ignored the restrictions. This led to the New Hampshire Pine Tree Riot in 1772.
The New Hampshire riot began when a mill owner was fined for possessing controlled trees and refused to pay. When authorities arrived to arrest the mill owner, locals assaulted them. They gave the sheriff a lash with a tree switch for every tree they were being fined for. This was followed by cutting the ears, manes, and tails off their horses and forcing them out of town through a jeering crowd. This incident happened two years before the Boston Tea Party and three years before the outbreak of hostilities.
The colonists adopted the pine tree as a symbol on flags and currency in the 17th century, including the flag of New England and coins produced by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Later, as war approached, the pine tree increasingly became a symbol of colonial resistance to the Crown.
The Pine Tree Flag, or a variation of it, was flown by Americans in many battles. An early map of Boston featured an image of a British Redcoat trying to rip this flag out of the hands of a colonist. The Pine Tree Flag also inspired similar flags with similar mottos, and since flags were handmade, variations were quite common.
At the Battle of Bunker Hill on 17 June 1775, the colonists flew a flag that featured a red field with a green pine tree in the upper left corner. In October 1775, Washington’s secretary, Colonel Joseph Reed, suggested that the newly commissioned naval ships fly a “flag with a white ground and a tree in the middle, the motto AN APPEAL TO HEAVEN.” The first American warships went to sea flying the Pine Tree Flag, and that flag was flown by most American ships through the entire Revolutionary War.
The motto, “An Appeal to Heaven” had its origins in the 1690 “Second Treatise on Civil Government” by British philosopher John Locke. His two treatises refuted the principle of the “divine right of kings.” Locke was one of the most prominent thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment. He lived 1632-1704 and died of natural causes which amazes me because of his assault on all monarchies.
In his defense of the “right of revolution” Locke wrote:
“And where the body of the people, or any single man, is deprived of their right, or is under the exercise of a power without right, and have no appeal on earth, then they have a liberty to appeal to heaven, whenever they judge the cause of sufficient moment. And therefore, though the people cannot be judge, so as to have, by the constitution of that society, any superior power, to determine and give effective sentence in the case; yet they have, by a law antecedent and paramount to all positive laws of men, reserved that ultimate determination to themselves which belongs to all mankind, where there lies no appeal on earth, viz. to judge, whether they have just cause to make their appeal to heaven.”
Locke’s works were well known by colonial leaders who made him the most quoted authority on government during the 1760-1776 period. Richard Henry Lee accused fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson of plagiarizing Locke in some sections of the Declaration of Independence.
Revolutionary-era Americans were comfortable with the “Appeal to Heaven” or similar motto. Most colonists were religious and believed they would have to rely on the protection of God in the battle for freedom from all-powerful Britain. American thinking and philosophy were so grounded on a Biblical perspective that a 1774 British parliamentary report stated, “If you ask an American, ‘Who is his master?’ He will tell you he has none-nor any governor but Jesus Christ.” I believe that says it all.
Americans used many flags, banners, and symbols in the lead-up to, and during the Revolutionary War. The Franklin “join or die” symbol, the Gadsden Flag and the Pine Tree Flag were only three of them but are probably the most recognizable today. Some flags never saw widespread use, some were military unit flags, and in some cases, we do not know for sure if a particular flag was ever flown.
The numerous flag designs were symbols of American’s resistance, resolve, and commitment to the cause of individual rights. Their bravery resulted in the birth of the United States of America-the only government of, by and for the people. In my opinion it is still the “Glorious Cause”