11/28/12 - the first american flag?

In today's selection -- in 1775, a new flag was first flown by the American colonies in their war against the British. The flag reflected the fact that the war was still a dispute, and not yet a war for independence. And the flag further reflected that the colonies has just started a navy, and naval ships needed a flag to avoid being mistaken for pirate ships:

"A flag was as necessary as commodore or crew [to a ship], for a national navy was nothing without it. If a flag for an army unit or a headquarters on land was a tradition to express a sense of pride and loyalty, for a ship on the trackless seas it was a necessity as a sign of identity so that it should not be taken for a pirate. Until now, ships commissioned by the separate colonies flew the colony's flag, like the pine tree of Massachu­setts, or a personal standard, like the coiled serpent of George Wash­ington with its device 'Don't tread on me.' For the Continental Navy, a flag was wanted to represent the hard-won confederation of colonies under one sovereignty, the great step that made feasible a war of rev­olution. This flag, made at the seat of Congress in Philadelphia, by a milliner, Margaret Manny, was to be the one to receive the first salute. Everyone knows about Betsy Ross, why do we know nothing about Margaret Manny? Probably for no better reason than that she had fewer articulate friends and relatives to build a story around her.

"Rather than venture into the tangled web of flag origins where a dispute attaches to every point, let us simply accept the fact that a red-and-white-striped flag made its appearance aboard a ship of the new navy at its dock in Philadelphia in December, 1775. What is on record here is that Margaret Manny, milliner, received from James Wharton of Philadelphia, 49 yards of broad bunting and 52 1/2 yards of the narrow width with which to prepare an ensign. The goods were charged to the account of the ship Alfred, flagship of the squadron and, with 30 guns, largest of the first four. The finished product, leaving aside the question of who designed it, displayed thirteen red and white stripes, representing the union of the thirteen colonies, together with the combined crosses of St. Andrew and St. George in the canton or upper left quadrant retained from the Union Jack.

"The crosses had appeared on the British flag since 1707, when the two kingdoms of England and Scotland formed a union under the Crown of Great Britain. Their appearance on the American flag indicated that the Colonies were not yet ready to detach themselves from the British Crown or declare themselves a new sov­ereign state. Richard Henry Lee's path-breaking resolution in Congress in June, 1776, "that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States . . . and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved" was still under heavy dispute. What the Colonies wanted at this stage was more autonomy, the irreplaceable sense of freedom of a mature people with the right to tax themselves, free of the imposition of taxes and statutes by the British Parliament without their consent, and what they were fighting for was to force Great Britain to accept this position.

"On a mid-winter day, December 3, 1775, the new flag was flown. 'I hoisted with my own hands the flag of freedom,' Jones recalled on the deck of his ship, the Alfred, at her dock in Philadelphia in the Delaware River, while the commodore and officers of the fleet and a cheering crowd of citizens hailed the event from shore. Washington, shortly afterward, on January 1, 1776, raised what is believed to be the same flag on Prospect Hill in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during his siege of Boston. Testimony as to whether this flag, called the Grand Union, was carried at Trenton and Brandywine and other land battles is elusive, though it was soon to fly visibly in active combat at sea. The Grand Union gave way to the Stars and Stripes, officially adopted by Congress in June, 1777, with thirteen white stars on a blue field replacing the British crosses. In 1795, two stars were added, representing the adherence to the union of Kentucky and Vermont.


Barbara W. Tuchman


The First Salute


Ballantine Books


Copyright 1988 by Barbara W. Tuchman


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