Politics & Policy

The Forgotten Flag of the American Revolution and What It Means

Remembering one of the nation’s most important banners — the Grand Union Flag.

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in 1775 was barely a fiftieth of what it was in Great Britain, and the levies to which Americans had objected had been repealed before the fighting began.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.

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.

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