J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, April 30, 2007

What People Read About the “Liberty Tree Flag”

Last Friday, I posted a baker’s dozen contemporaneous reports on flags at Boston’s Liberty Tree in the 1760s. Two of those quotes turn out to be particularly significant, I think, and I’ll return to them later. But now I’m going to jump ahead to when the Bostonian Society’s “Liberty Tree Flag” is definitely documented.

The red and white banner came to the society in 1893 from John C. Fernald. Earlier in that year he had loaned it to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where the official catalogue of items in the U.S. Government Building listed it as:

10. Liberty Tree Flag—
Part of the original flag which waved over the Liberty Tree on Boston Common in 1775. Loaned and collected by John C. Fernald, Boston, Mass.
In the same display were several weapons said to have been carried in the Battle of Bunker Hill and the sword of Col. James Barrett, senior provincial officer during the fight at Concord.

Fernald told the Bostonian Society that he’d purchased the flag from a granddaughter of a wireworker named Samuel Adams, who had died in 1855 at the age of ninety-six. Apparently the statement that it had flown on Liberty Tree had come down through the generations of that family.

How reliable was Fernald’s information? In some ways, it clearly wasn’t. Liberty Tree was never “on Boston Common”—it was at the corner of modern Washington and Boylston Streets. There were thousands of army troops in Boston throughout 1775, making a mass meeting of Sons of Liberty very unlikely in that year. But those details might have been mistaken assumptions about Revolutionary Boston, off by just a few blocks and a few years.

The Chicago catalogue’s statement that the cloth was only “Part of the original flag” implies that Fernald thought the original was larger, probably much larger. Does that support the theory that the banner originally had thirteen stripes? Or is this more likely another mistaken assumption, distorted by hindsight?

Who was Samuel Adams, wireworker? I haven’t unearthed any information about him, but I’ve just started digging. If the information about his death is correct, then he was born in 1759 and still a teenager in 1775, when Liberty Tree was chopped down. That would make him an unlikely guardian of the Patriots’ flag, but perhaps he inherited the cloth from his father or master.

I did find one curious passage in Charles Francis Adams’s 1871 biography of his grandfather, John Adams:
in the town meeting or the body meeting,...all assembled on an equal footing. And Samuel Adams, the journeyman wireworker, living on perhaps fifty cents earned every week-day, was entitled to his say as freely, though he might not be heard so readily, as his namesake whilst engaged in combining the far more important wires of the corresponding committees.
The Samuel Adams who died in 1855 would have been too young to speak in town meetings when the more famous Samuel Adams was managing the town’s Committee of Correspondence. So was this mention of a wireworker with that name just a literary coincidence?

I think that information published in the late 1800s might be very significant to understanding the “Liberty Tree Flag.” Those publications were the lens through which people viewed the past. They determined what people expected in Revolutionary artifacts.

Which brings me to those two particular quotations from Friday. Most came from newspapers. While those newspapers survived in Massachusetts libraries, I don’t think they’d yet been collected in complete runs (much less turned into a digital database). Few, if any, historians had read through all the issues of the late 1760s to find all mentions of Liberty Tree. As for the two quotes from John Rowe’s diary, that document wasn’t published until 1895.

So that leaves two items from my Friday list: the reports to London from Gov. Francis Bernard and the Customs Commissioners, describing “a Flag-Staff, which went through the Tree, and a good deal above the Top of the Tree,” and “a red flag.” Those documents were printed in 1769, having been leaked in London. The resulting pamphlet remained in Boston’s archives, much easier to find and read than the newspapers.

The historian Richard Frothingham drew on that source for his 1865 Life and Times of Joseph Warren. On page 61, he wrote, “A red flag was now hoisted above Liberty Tree,” and, “there was a larger assemblage at Liberty Tree, over which still waved the red flag, than had ever been seen in the town.” Though Frothingham noted Union flags at other Whig demonstrations, that page contains his only description of a flag at Liberty Tree. George H. Preble’s History of the Flag of the United States (1872) offered the same information, probably based on Frothingham.

Thus, the best-informed Americans during the Centennial of 1876 and through 1893 probably all thought that the flag at Liberty Tree was red—not, as in most of the newspaper reports from the 1760s, a British Union flag. Which certainly made it easier to believe that a certain red-and-white, seven-feet-by-thirteen banner was that flag.

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