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The Forgotten Flag of the American Revolution and What It Means
Remembering one of the nation’s most important banners — the Grand Union Flag.


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We all know the story of American independence, don’t we? A rugged frontier people became increasingly tired of being ruled by a distant elite. A group calling themselves Patriots were especially unhappy about being taxed by a parliament in which they were unrepresented. When, in 1775, British Redcoats tried to repress them, a famous Patriot called Paul Revere rode through the night across eastern Massachusetts, crying “The British are coming!” The shots that were fired the next day began a war for independence which culminated the following year in the statehouse in Philadelphia, when George Washington and others, meeting under Betsy Ross’s gorgeous flag, signed the Declaration of Independence.

It’s a stirring story, but it’s false in every aspect. Neither Paul Revere nor anyone else could have shouted “The British are coming!” in 1775: The entire population of Massachusetts was British. (What the plucky Boston silversmith actually yelled was “The regulars are out!”) The overall level of taxation in the colonies in 1775 was barely a fiftieth of what it was in Great Britain, and the levies to which Americans had objected had been repealed before the fighting began. The Boston Tea Party, which sparked the violence, was brought about by a lowering of the duty on tea. George Washington wasn’t there when the Declaration of Independence was signed. The flag that the Patriots marched under was not, except on very rare occasions, the stars-and-stripes (which probably wasn’t sewn by Betsy Ross) but the Grand Union flag.

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Known also as the Congress Flag and the Continental Colors, the Grand Union Flag had the 13 red and white stripes as they are today, but in the top left-hand quarter, instead of stars, it showed Britain’s flag, made up of the St. George’s Cross for England and the St. Andrew’s Cross for Scotland. It was the banner that the Continental Congress met under, the banner that flew over their chamber when they approved the Declaration of Independence. It was the banner that George Washington fought beneath, that John Paul Jones hoisted on the first ship of the United States Navy. That it has been almost excised from America’s collective memory tells us a great deal about how the story of the Revolution was afterward edited.

The men who raised that standard believed that they were fighting for their freedoms as Britons — freedoms that had been trampled by a Hanoverian king and his hirelings. When they called themselves Patriots — a word that had been common currency among Whigs on both sides of the Atlantic long before anyone dreamed of a separation — they meant that they were British patriots, cherishing the peculiar liberties that had come down to them since Magna Carta: jury trials, free contract, property rights, habeas corpus, parliamentary representation, liberty of conscience, and the common law.

It was these ideals that were set to paper in a small secular miracle at Philadelphia’s old courthouse. As the Virginia-born Lady Astor later put it, the war was fought “by British Americans against a German king for British ideals.”

Don’t take her word for it: Look at the primary sources. The resolutions of the Continental Congress are a protracted complaint about the violations of traditional British liberties. The same is true of the Declaration of Independence itself. As that great Anglo-American Winston Churchill put it:

The Declaration was in the main a restatement of the principles which had animated the Whig struggle against the later Stuarts and the English Revolution of 1688. 

Indeed it was, often in the most literal way: the right of petition, the prohibition of standing armies, the protection of common law and jury trials, the right to bear arms — all were copied from England’s Glorious Revolution. Some of the clauses of England’s 1689 Bill of Rights were reproduced without amendment. Here, for example, is the English Bill of Rights on criminal justice:

Excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. 

And here is the U.S. Constitution:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

The American Revolution was motivated not by a rejection but a reaffirmation — indeed, an intensification — of British national identity. No one understood this better than the great Edmund Burke, whose 1775 speech on conciliation is as fine as any delivered in the House of Commons:

The colonists emigrated from you when this part of your character [love of freedom] was most predominant; and they took this bias and direction the moment they parted from your hands. They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles. 

It did not occur to any of the actors to treat the conflict as being between two nations — at least, not until the French became involved in 1778. Indeed, the whole affair would be better understood as the Second Anglosphere Civil War — the first being the one fought across England, Scotland, Ireland, and America in the 1640s.

The Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution that followed, distilled and fortified the principles on which British exceptionalism had rested since the Great Charter. No Briton can be unmoved when he stands in the room where those sublime documents were signed. Their promise is why large parts of the world remain prosperous, free, and self-governing. That is the gift of the English-speaking peoples to the rest of the human race. It is why, taking the bad along with the good, we say, on this of all days, God bless America.

— Daniel Hannan writes for the Telegraph and is author of Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World.


Revolutionary Flags
Old Glory gets her day in the spotlight on July 4 as Americans celebrate Independence Day with a million flags unfurled. Here’s a look back at some of the other flags that flew during the American revolutionary era. Pictured here, the Grand Union Flag.
The American Revolution was filled with flags flown by both patriots and soldiers. This 1885 textbook illustration shows the most well-known players.
Join or Die: Benjamin Franklin originally created the iconic snake image as a political cartoon in 1754 to rally the colonies together during the French and Indian War. By 1775 — with Franklin now a member of the Pennsylvania delegation to the Continental Congress — it proved a popular and powerful message of unity in the cause of separation from British rule.
Gadsden Flag: The Gadsden flag and its iconic motto “Don’t Tread on Me” was invented by its namesake, Christopher Gadsden, a leader of the South Carolina Patriot movement, member of the Charleston chapter of the Sons of Liberty, and a delegate to the first two Continental Congresses. The flag was also flown by the forebearers of the U.S. Marine Corps.
The Gadsden Flag recently has seen a rebirth of popularity among Tea Party members, who embrace it’s antiauthoritarian animus in protesting against the encroachments of an oversized central government.
Pine Tree Flag: The pine tree had been used on various flags in the New England region before it appeared on flags flown by six schooners outfitted by George Washington in 1775. The phrase “Appeal to Heaven” — sometimes written as “Appeal to God” — is a reference to the right of revolution described by John Locke. The appearance of the tree and placement of the words varies.
Sons of Liberty Flag: The secret society instrumental in guiding the independence movement adopted a flag with nine vertical stripes — presumably representing the Loyal Nine who had agitated against the Stamp Act, and also known as the Liberty Flag — and changed it to 13 horizontal stripes after the Boston Tea Party in 1773.
Grand Union Flag: Also known as the Congress Flag and the Continental Colors, this flag had 13 stripes representing the colonies but included the British flag instead of a blue field with stars. It was under this flag, and not Betsy Ross’s famous creation, that the Continental Congress met and that flew over George Washington’s troops during the war.
Lieutenant John Paul Jones is credited with first hoisting the Grand Union flag aboard USS Alfred. The flag few on Continental Navy ships throughout the war. Pictured, a Grand Union Flag flies over the Continental Navy ship Columbus (with a captured British vessel alongside) in 1776. (W. Nowland Van Powell, Naval Historical Center)
The Grand Union Flag is raised by order of General George Washington on January 1, 1776, on the strategically-located Prospect Hill in Charlestown, Mass., in this painting by Clyde O. DeLand. Some historians dispute that Prospect Hill was the actual site of the first unfurling.
Navy Jack: The image of a snake and the "Don't Tread on Me" motto also appears on the First Navy Jack, flown by the Continental Navy in 1775. In 2002, the U.S. Navy began flying the First Navy Jack in place of the Union Jack on all Navy vessels for the duration of the war on terror. Pictured, raising the Navy Jack is raised aboard USS Kitty Hawk.
Airman Justin Frisbie hoists the Navy jack on the flight deck of USS John C. Stennis, April 2013. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Ignacio D. Perez)
The Navy Jack is also seen on some Naval uniforms. In the fall of 2013 reports spread that the Navy was no longer allowing SEAL personnel to wear the First Navy Jack insignia, but the Navy confirmed that the symbol was not banned (though this may have been backpedaling in response to intense criticism).
Bunker Hill Flag: Perhaps befitting the flag of a battle popularly known for one hill when it was mostly fought on another, the exact colors of the Bunker Hill flag are in some dispute, though all used a similar pine tree image.
Artist John Trumbull depicted the Bunker Hill Flag with a blue field (upper left) in The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, but some accounts depict a red field.
Betsy Ross Flag: Ross remains the central figure in the traditional history of the American flag, but there is little documentary evidence to prove this version, which became popular only a century after the fact. What we call the Betsy Ross Flag was one of many designs based on a general request from the Continental Congress. Most accounts credit Ross with the five-point star design.
Betsy Ross, 1777 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (Library of Congress)
The Birth of Old Glory by Edward Percy Moran (Library of Congress)
Old Glory: Used now to denote every American flag, the first “Old Glory” was owned by Captain William Driver, who displayed it on two round-the-world voyages. Originally produced in 1824 with 24 stars of the Union, it was remade with 34 stars in 1861. Driver hid the flag inside a quilt during the Civil War, and unfurled it again when Union troops reoccupied Nashville.
Updated: Jul. 04, 2014

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