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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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Great Union Flag and the Boston Gentry

Yesterday I quoted George III’s October 1775 speech in Parliament about the American rebellion. Copies were printed in Boston and sent out to the American lines on 1 Jan 1776. As it happened, that was also the day Gen. George Washington showed his staff a new flag, adopted to coincide with his reorganization of the Continental Army. He had the flag raised on Cambridge’s Prospect Hill the next morning.

On 4 Jan 1776, Washington wrote sarcastically to Joseph Reed at Philadelphia:

We are at length favoured with a sight of his Majesty’s most gracious speech, breathing sentiments of tenderness and compassion for his deluded American subjects; the echo has not yet come to hand, but we know what it must be, and as Lord North said, and we ought to have believed, (and acted accordingly,) we now know the ultimatum of British justice.

The speech I send you; a volume of them was sent out by the Boston gentry, and farcical enough, we gave great joy to them, (the red coats I mean,) without knowing or intending it, for on that day, the day which gave being to the new army, (but before the proclamation came to hand,) we had hoisted the union flag in compliment to the United Colonies; but behold! it was received in Boston as a token of the deep impression the speech had made upon us, and as a signal of submission, so we heard by a person out of Boston last night. By this time I presume they begin to think it strange that we have not made a formal surrender of our lines.
Based on the number of similar phrases, we can be fairly certain that Reed digested that letter into the report that appeared in the Pennsylvania Packet on 15 January:
That upon the King’s Speech arriving at Boston, a great number of them were reprinted and sent out to our lines on the 2d of January, which being also the day of forming the new army, the great Union Flag was hoisted on Prospect Hill, in compliment to the United Colonies—this happening soon after the Speeches were delivered at Roxbury, but before they were received at Cambridge, the Boston gentry supposed it to be a token of the deep impression—That they were much disappointed at finding several days elapse without some formal measure leading to a surrender, with which they had begun to flatter themselves.
The Packet also mentioned “An intelligent person got out of Boston on the 3d,” presumably the same one Washington cited as his source on the disappointment of the Loyalist “Boston gentry.”

I went looking for more detail about that feeling of disappointment within Boston. In his History of the American Flag (1872), George Henry Preble quoted a version of the anecdote that he dated to the very day the flag rose:
An anonymous letter, written Jan. 2, 1776, says: “The grand union flag of thirteen stripes was raised on a height near Boston. The regulars did not understand it; and as the king’s speech had just been read, as they supposed, they thought the new flag was a token of submission.”
I couldn’t identify the source of this quotation, however, and finally came to suspect that Preble had misinterpreted a passage published by “T. Westcott” of Philadelphia in Notes and Queries in 1852:
The grand union flag of thirteen stripes was raised on the heights near Boston, January 2, 1776. Letters from there say that the regulars in Boston did not understand it; and as the king’s speech had just been sent to the Americans, they thought the new flag was a token of submission.
In other words, there was no anonymous letter dated 2 January. Rather, letters from near Boston at some point after the flag-raising—i.e., the commander-in-chief’s, quoted above—were the first written versions of the story.

Americans from Washington down certainly enjoyed the anecdote, which underscored American steadfastness while painting their rivals as fools. A century later the raising of the grand union flag also inspired the painting shown in thumbnail above, with Gen. Washington overseeing the ceremony. For a closer look and more detail, check out Steve Mulder’s website on Prospect Hill.

TOMORROW: But how much evidence is there for that anecdote?

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

On this posting, Peter Ansoff suggests that Joseph Reed misread Washington’s letter when he said the flag-raising took place on 2 Jan 1776, and that it actually occurred the day before.