Monday, July 6, 2009

Heraldic Myths, Part Two

We’ve just gone through our Independence Day celebrations here, with parades, and fireworks, and cooking outdoors on grills, and much flag waving. Well, it was that last one that got me to remembering another heraldic myth, this one having to do with the nascent United States of America.

It’s a myth that gets repeated a fair bit, in spite of the complete lack of any evidence to support it except the very faintest of visual similarities. The nub of the myth is that the coat of arms of George Washington, Azure two bars and in chief three mullets gules, was the inspiration for the design of the American flag (in 1777 when it was first adopted, Barry of thirteen gules and argent, on a quarter azure [a circle of] thirteen mullets argent). Okay, sure, both Washington’s arms and the flag both have white with red horizontal stripes, and they both have stars. And yes, according to the story, it was General Washington himself who went to Betsy Ross, a seamstress in Philadelphia, to sew the first flag. (We’ll just ignore for now the fact that there is absolutely no contemporary evidence for this supposed meeting.)

The myth also ignores the prior use, beginning two years earlier in 1775, of other flags far more similar in design to the new national flag than Washington’s coat of arms and shown below from left to right: the Navy Jack (1775), which used the thirteen stripes; the Grand Union flag (1775), which used the Union flag in the first quarter; and the Bennington flag of 1777.

I mean, sure, it would be nice to believe that George Washington, the "Father of his country", also helped to give birth to its premier emblem, the "Stars and Stripes". But nice stories alone, without any other evidentiary support, do not history make. And certainly the real history of George Washington and of the United States are sufficiently interesting on their own to not need the artificial support of an heraldic myth. Such mythmaking does a disservice, I believe, to the men and women who pledged their "Lives, [their] Fortunes and [their] sacred Honor" to found the nation of which that flag is the symbol.

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