Yesterday I started to write about the Bostonian Society’s “Liberty Tree Flag” and its ongoing efforts to authenticate that banner as one which indeed flew from Boston’s Liberty Tree to signal popular meetings.
That flag has nine vertical stripes, alternating red and white, as shown here. It’s natural to ask, therefore, what those stripes might symbolize. That was the topic of Dr. Whitney Smith’s talk at the Old State House Museum on Monday evening.
But first, some of the earlier explanations proffered for the nine stripes. David Martucci’s essay on American Revolutionary flags quotes one (without, I should say, endorsing it):
According to Standards and Colors of the American Revolution by Edward W. Richardson (University of Pennsylvania Press & the Pennsylvania Society of Sons of the Revolution and its Color Guard, 1982) the nine stripes could correspond to nine segments of the cut up rattlesnake in the cartoon (representing New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia).Unfortunately, Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 cartoon calling for colonial unity shows a snake in eight pieces. (He didn’t include Georgia, and treated Delaware as part of Pennsylvania.)
Delegates from nine colonies attended the Stamp Act Congress of October 1765, around the same time that Boston’s Whigs gave Liberty Tree its political name. So could the flag have nine stripes to symbolize those nine colonies? I doubt the Whigs would have done that because some colonies not at the congress had nonetheless opposed the Stamp Act, including close neighbor New Hampshire; Virginia, oldest and largest of Britain’s American colonies; and Nova Scotia. When you see yourself in a titanic struggle for your political liberties, you don’t want to alienate your friends.
Another possible explanation is that the “Liberty Tree Flag” is only part of the original banner. It might have contained more vertical stripes. It might even be just a scrap of a much larger flag with thirteen horizontal stripes, the common arrangement of early national flags. But that would have been a huge, heavy banner, probably impractical for this use. And there doesn’t seem to be any physical or documentary evidence suggesting that this banner was only a minor part of the original.
In his public lecture, Dr. Smith offered an ingenious new theory: the four white stripes and five red stripes represented the number 45. Any American Whig of the 1760s would have immediately recognized that number as a reference to issue No. 45 of John Wilkes’s magazine The North-Briton, which landed him and some of his associates in jail in London for sedition.
American Whigs indeed adopted the number 45 as one of their symbols for resistance to unjust government from London. In 1768, a group of Whig businessmen commissioned Paul Revere to create a punch bowl for them, and among the many political mottoes engraved on it was:
No 45.In fact, the men even seem to have called the whole bowl “Number 45.” Merchant John Rowe wrote in his diary for 1 Aug 1768: “Spent the evening at Mr. Barber’s Insurance Office & the Silver Bowl was this evening for the first time introduced, No. 45. Weighs 45 ounces & holds 45 gills”. (Nathaniel Barber’s name is one of those inscribed on the bowl.) Now dubbed the “Sons of Liberty Bowl,” this artifact is at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Wilkes & Liberty
Probably the most memorable American use of the number 45 came two years later in New York, after Alexander McDougall was put in jail for criticizing the royal government in a broadside—a freedom of press issue much like Wilkes’s. Then someone noticed that the proceedings against McDougall fell on page 45 of the legislative record. Coincidence? They thought not. Mary Louise Booth’s 1867 History of the City of New York states:
...on the forty-fifth day of the year,...forty-five of the Liberty Boys went in procession to the New Jail, where they dined with him on forty-five beef-steaks cut from a bullock forty-five months old, and, after drinking forty-five toasts with a number of friends who joined them after dinner, separated, vowing eternal fidelity to the common cause.On another occasion, McDougall was reportedly visited by forty-five virgins singing him either (according to different sources) forty-five songs or the 45th Psalm. Historians seem to enjoy this episode particularly because it offers the chance to quote an anonymous Tory’s suggestion that all those virgins were forty-five years old.
We can even connect the number 45 to Liberty Tree. On the evening of 19 May 1766, the next issue of the Boston News-Letter reported, there were forty-five lanterns hung on Liberty Tree. However, that same item also indicates that the town’s Whigs were moving on to higher numbers. They thought their tree “would have made a more loyal and striking Appearance if [the number of lanterns] increased to the glorious Majority of 108.” So they loaded up the tree with more than twice as many lanterns the next night. Even Revere’s punch bowl features the number 92 more prominently than Wilkes’s 45.
(What, for goodness’ sake, was the significance of 108 or 92? I’m guessing that the “glorious Majority of 108” referred to the margin of victory when the House of Commons voted 275-167 to repeal the Stamp Act in early 1766. As for 92, after Gov. Francis Bernard insisted the Massachusetts House rescind its vote against the Townshend Act in 1768, ninety-two legislators refused to comply.)
So what do all those numbers mean to the “Liberty Tree Flag”? While American Whigs did adopt the number 45, I’m unaware of any other time they used four and five stripes to symbolize it—that would have required more explanation than, say, embroidering “45” on the cloth. Also, when Whigs celebrated 45, they weren’t shy about proclaiming that symbolism and what it meant in their newspapers.
TOMORROW: What Boston newspapers said about the flag on Liberty Tree.