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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Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Myth of the Professor’s Flag

Often the legend of the “Speech of the Unknown,” retold yesterday, is paired with another legend of an unidentified man advising the Founders, in this case about the American flag. To the conspiracy-minded, these two men must be the same. To anyone concerned with history based on contemporaneous documents and primary sources, the stories are equally ludicrous.

The oldest version of the flag story appeared in Our Flag, or the Evolution of the Stars and Stripes including the Reason to Be of the Design; the Colors, and Their Position, Mystic Interpretation Together with Selections Eloquent, Patriotic and Poetical, published by Robert A. Campbell in 1890. An extract appears on this webpage. It sets the scene this way:

In the fall of 1775, the Colonial Congress, then in session at Philadelphia, appointed Messrs. [Benjamin] Franklin, [Thomas] Lynch and [Benjamin] Harrison as a committee to consider and recommend a design for the Colonial Flag. General [George] Washington was then in camp at Cambridge, Massachusetts; and the committee went there to consult with him concerning the work in hand.
The Continental Congress did in fact appoint those three delegates as a committee to consult with the commander, but not on the flag. They met in a council of war, which also included other top generals and representatives from the New England colonies, at Washington’s headquarters on 23-24 Oct 1775. Congress’s records show that Lynch and Harrison were back in Philadelphia accepting new committee assignments in early November.

Campbell’s book differs, saying that “The committeemen arrived at Cambridge on the morning of December 13th.” And it describes three more participants in the discussion between Washington and the Congress delegates: “one of the patriotic and well-to-do citizens” of Cambridge, who hosted the visitors; that man’s wife; and
a very peculiar old gentleman who was a temporary sojourner with the family. . . . Little seems to have been known concerning this old gentleman; and in the materials from which this account is compiled his name is not even once mentioned, for he is uniformly spoken of or referred to as “the Professor.”
Since there were few colleges in North America at the time, there were very few professors, and those gentlemen were all very prominent. This man, in contrast, seems to have been some sort of anonymous professor.

After a great deal of detail that makes one wonder if Campbell was trying to fill out pages, he states that the group formed themselves into a committee to discuss the flag. Naturally, the one woman at the table becomes the secretary—this is a late nineteenth-century story, after all.

The mysterious Professor addresses the needs for a flag:
“Comrade Americans: We are assembled here to devise and suggest the design for a new flag, which will represent, at once, the principles and determination of the Colonies to unite in demanding and securing justice from the Government to which they still owe recognized allegiance. We are not, therefore, expected to design or recommend a flag which will represent a new government or an independent nation, but one which simply represents the principle that even kings owe something of justice to their loyal subjects. . . .

“General Washington, here, is a British Subject; aye, he is a British soldier; and he is in command of British troops; and they are only attempting to enforce their rights as loyal subjects of the British Crown. But General Washington will soon forswear all allegiance to everything foreign; and he will ere many months appear before his own people, the people of these Colonies, and before the world, as the general commanding the armies of a free and united people, organized into a new and independent nation.

“The flag which is now recommended must be one designed and adapted to meet the inevitable—and soon to be accomplished—change of allegiance. The flag now adopted must be one that will testify our present loyalty as English Subjects; and it must be one easily modified—but needing no radical change—to make it announce and represent the new nation which is already gestating in the womb of time; and which will come to birth—and that not prematurely, but fully developed and ready for the change into independent life—before the sun in its next summer’s strength ripens our next harvest. . . .”
Having predicted the future—without any apparent response from the officials around him—the Professor then goes on to describe the ideal source for the Continental Army’s flag:
“I refer to the flag of the English East India Company, which is one with a field of alternate longitudinal red and white stripes, and having the Cross of St. George for a union. I therefore, suggest for your consideration a flag with a field composed of thirteen equally wide, longitudinal, alternate, red and white stripes, and with the Union Flag of England for a union.”
So the same company that American Patriots were lambasting as a source of corruption just two years before, during the tea crisis, would be the best source for the new national emblem?

It’s true that the East India Company’s red and white stripes (shown above in one version) looked a lot like the stripes that would eventually be on the American flag. Almost half a century after Our Flag appeared, Sir Charles Fawcett made the same connection. However, since the company’s ships were in the Indian Ocean, not many Americans had seen that flag. (For Peter Ansoff’s interesting detective work on how the company’s flag came to appear in an engraving of the Philadelphia waterfront in 1754, scroll down this page to the American Revolution Round Table’s 4 Mar 2009 event.)

Back to Campbell’s fictional Professor. He expounds on the symbolism of the banner he’s designed:
“Such a flag can readily be explained to the masses to mean as follows: The Union Flag of the Mother Country is retained as the union of our new flag to announce that the Colonies are loyal to the just and legitimate sovereignty of the British Government. The thirteen stripes will at once be understood to represent the thirteen Colonies; their equal width will type the equal rank, rights and responsibilities of the Colonies.

“The union of the stripes in the field of our flag will announce the unity of interests and the cooperative union of efforts, which the Colonies recognize and put forth in their common cause. The white stripes will signify that we consider our demands just and reasonable; and that we will seek to secure our rights through peaceable, intelligent and statesmanlike means—if they prove at all possible, and the red stripes at the top and bottom of our flag will declare that first and last—and always—we have the determination, the enthusiasm, and the power to use force, whenever we deem force necessary.

“The alternation of the red and white stripes will suggest that our reasons for all demands will be intelligent and forcible, and that our force in securing our rights will be just and reasonable.”
Our Flag states that this design was instantly adopted, with “General Washington and Doctor Franklin giving especial approval” (since no one in 1890 really cared what Harrison or Lynch might have thought). The book describes the debut of the Professor’s first flag in Cambridge on 2 Jan 1776—Washington “with his own hands” raising the standard and the Congress delegates still on hand. (More standard accounts discussed starting here.)

In Flags of the World, Past and Present (1915), W. J. Gordon called Campbell “greatly daring” for having claimed to reproduce the Professor’s long speech verbatim, especially since it contained historical errors about the British and East India Company flags. But Gordon nevertheless retold the story—and put that speech into Franklin’s mouth!

TOMORROW: Campbell’s legend continues—in Philadelphia.

2 comments:

Robert S. Paul said...

It's awfully sad these writers have trampled history the way they do, but moreso that people believed them.

Washington raised the flag with his own hands? Really?

J. L. Bell said...

Many myths about George Washington from the 1800s involve some sort of direct contact with him—a totally undocumented personal visit or even, as in this case, a laying on of hands.