Saturday, July 05, 2014

The Forgotten Flag of the American Revolution and What It Means

It's a continual amazement to me what people claim to find in the Declaration of Independence.  I have read it many times now and most of its alleged contents are simply not there.  Daniel Hannan below for instance nominates "Magna Carta, jury trials, free contract, property rights, habeas corpus, parliamentary representation, liberty of conscience, and the common law" as things that are demanded there. But of that list I can find jury trials only.  Most of the Declaration comprises complaints about the King stopping the American grandees from making more and more laws to regulate their countrymen.  It was the King who was the libertarian, not the revolutionaries.

The proponents of revolutions are as far as I can tell  always Leftists -- Leftists who have fine talk about the justice of their cause but who basically are just grabbing power for their own clique.  And I cannot see that the American revolutionaries were any different.  They even headline their Declaration with that classic but absurd Leftist slogan:  "all men are created equal".

The Leftism that the Declaration embodied is of course much more limited than the Leftism we know today but it was a definite Leftist episode in history nonetheless

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in 1775 was barely a fiftieth of what it was in Great Britain, and the levies to which Americans had objected had been repealed before the fighting began.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


Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).

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