Friday, June 13, 2014

June 14 - Thoughts for Flag Day on the Origins of the Stars and Stripes

The Stars in the Stars and Stripes are more of a puzzle to
explain than the Stripes. Why five points on the Stars?
Today is Flag Day in the United States. The stars and stripes flag was adopted in 1777 by resolution of the Second Continental Congress. Two years earlier, the U.S. Army was born on the same day. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed June 14 as Flag Day and in August 1949, an Act of Congress made it statutory.

On Flag Day it is appropriate to consider the origins of the Stars and Stripes and their connection with the coat of arms of America's first president, George Washington. The various occurrences of the Washington coat of arms are readily found, but their influence on the American stars and stripes is denied. I would like to restate the case against the connection and then why I believe the case against the connection is biased and unproven.

The Case against the Connection
  • In a 1914 letter to the NY Times, a self-certified heraldry expert considers the connection unproven, based on a trip around England looking for evidence of a connection between the coat of arms and the flag. 
  • The American Heraldry Society website features an article written in 2006 by Joseph McMillan, Director of Research for the Society, who says: "there is not a shred of evidence that the one [coat of arms of George Washington] had anything to do with the other [U.S. stars and stripes flag]."
  • The five-pointed star on the American flag is an invention of Betsy Ross - unrelated to the fact that the Washington coat of arms morphed from six-pointed to five-pointed stars (originally pierced mullets, later unpierced mullets or stars in Scottish heraldry).
  • The 1876 play by UK poet Martin Farquhar Tupper features Benjamin Franklin explaining that friends of George Washington were behind the stars and stripes, is said to have been based on a excess of imagination to give greater importance to the stars and stripes.
  • George Washington was a modest man who professed disdain for the trappings of office.
The Case for the Connection
  • The "shred of evidence" for the connection between the flag and the Washington coat of arms is that both have stars (or mullets) and stripes (or bars) in them, and George Washington was leader of the country when the flag was created. Whether the influence came from Washington or his many supporters, the visual resonance is satisfying.
  • The opponents of the connection may have a bias against the connection with the Washington family coat of arms because of its English origins, or its basis in aristocratic English heraldry, or in their distaste for the personalization of the American Revolution.
  • The 1914 letter may have been written by someone wishing to keep the United States out of the War in Europe by minimizing the historical ties between the United States and Britain.
  • Evidence of the attachment of George Washington to his family coat of arms is that he includes it on his correspondence and on silver items used in the house.
  • Gilbert Stuart's 1796 "Lansdowne" portrait of George Washington, for example, has an inkwell below his right hand with the family coat of arms on it. It did not imply that a family was in the nobility, just that it owned property and was thereby entitled to a coat of arms. English heraldry wasn't regulated until centuries later.
  • Whatever Washington said about the trappings of office, he used his coat of arms a great deal, certainly more than any later president. He actively incorporated changes in the coat of arms - substituting a griffin for the traditional raven. Article 1, Sections 9-10 eschews titles, but says nothing about use of coats of arms.
  • The two red stripes on the Washington coat of arms are alleged to represent the English king's honoring of a soldier who slew a great Dane in battle, by dipping two fingers into a wound on the Dane, and drawing two lines across the shield of the soldier. That became the soldier's coat of arms. (I could not verify the story, but it is so appealing I leave it for future research.)
  • A more plausible explanation than the Betsy Ross story is that George Washington's family was attached to the five-pointed pierced mullets, which over time lost their pierce (and thereby became stars in Scottish heraldic terms). 
  • The Washington family once had a stars-and-stripes coat of arms with six-pointed pierced mullets (star-like spurs), based on records from County Durham that I have seen in the British Library on two separate visits. The change to five points may have been a matter of family pride, since it has prevailed and distinguishes British from French heraldry.

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