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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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Annual Flag-Raising in Somerville, 1 Jan.

The new year can’t start without Somerville’s annual commemoration of the raising of the “Grand Union flag” at Prospect Hill Park. That will start on 11:30 A.M. on Wednesday as an actor on horseback portraying Gen. George Washington leads a procession from Somerville City Hall to Prospect Hill Park, just north of Union Square.

This year’s ceremony will feature a presentation by Byron DeLear of the North American Vexillological Association. He’s found evidence that the phrase “United States of America” was first written in Washington’s Cambridge headquarters early in 1776, soon after that flag-raising.

Back on 4 July 1775, the new commander-in-chief had told the army that “They are now the Troops of the UNITED PROVINCES of North America.” That was still the Continental Congress’s official term for the entities it represented. The shift to calling those entities “states” was a step toward thinking of them as independent of Britain. Ironically, the first man on record to do so was an immigrant to America.

The Somerville ceremony will also feature songs, readings, and His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot representing the British Army. A Grand Union flag will be raised atop the Prospect Hill Tower.

Of course, the term “Grand Union flag” was coined by George Preble in 1872, an error for what Dunlap’s Pennsylvania Packet called “the great Union Flag” in its 15 Jan 1776 issue. (The Pennsylvania Gazette used the same phrase on 17 January.) Gen. Washington had termed that banner a “Union flag” in his letter to Joseph Reed on 4 January.

Another vexillologist, Peter Ansoff, has argued that “Union flag” was the standard term for the British standard, showing how the Congress and Washington were not yet ready to break with Britain but still fighting for British rights within the Empire. Byron believes that the evidence supports the tradition that the Prospect Hill flag was a new design of the Union Jack with thirteen stripes. Unfortunately, a definite answer to that question harder to pin down than the phrase “United States of America” in a letter.

2 comments:

Peter Ansoff said...

I wish I could be there! I enjoyed meeting Byron at the NAVA conference last October, and I'm looking forward to an ongoing exchange of views with him.

Regarding the origins of "United States of America,": As you point out, "United Colonies" was the standard form used by the Congress before independence, and the substitution of "States" for "Colonies" would seen natural for someone like Moylan who was anticipating independence. I wonder if it's possible to trace the provenance of the term. It seems quite possible that other like-minded writers might have hit on it independently.

J. L. Bell said...

The flag design remains an interesting question. I suspect we might have more solid information if Joseph Reed's early letters to George Washington had survived; instead, we have mostly the general's replies.