In his seminal, eye-opening and mind-expanding survey of early American history Albion’s Seed, Doctor David Hackett Fischer explores how the folkways of four different regional cultures from the British Isles underlay American history and culture and there continuing influence up to the present day. Fischer’s cross-disciplinary study (history, anthropology, geography, music, gender studies, folklore) is fresh and alive and an astounding achievement. If you haven’t read it get on it now. When I read it many years ago, it changed the way I looked at American — and indeed all — history. And I’m not alone in that — there is a plethora of books that have come out in its wake exploring many of the same issues.
In his second book Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas, Fischer examines how American’s visualized the founding ideas of Liberty and Freedom. In a very small part of a huge survey, Fischer looks at how regional cultures in the colonies responded to the revolution through flags and banners and how they reflected the dominant folkways ideas of liberty and freedom in any given region. Here are some examples, with special Fourth of July flavorings:
In New England it was the Tree of Liberty that was the dominant image on flags and emblems. It’s an idea that stretches back to the Saxon oak gathering places of the New Englander’s distant ancestors, the sheltering oaks of legendary Sherwood Forest hiding the rebel Robin Hood from the tyrannical Sheriff of Nottingham, the folk memory of Jack Cade’s oak of reformation.
Many New England flags reflected the colonies’ Puritan past and strong connections to Cromwellian England. Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island flags were decorated with disembodied mail-clad arms, verdant vines, biblical quotes, hawsers and anchors — all of which had been symbols of Cromwell’s New Model Army during the 17th century Civil Wars in Britain.
Above is the anchor standard of the Rhode Island Regiment (culled from here) with the word “Hope” from In te Dominus speramus, In God We Hope, another Puritan motto. The idea and the word, of course, still assert a powerful appeal on the American psyche. Another president’s felicitous accident of birth played into that, too. As Fischer says, these were “folk symbols, firmly rooted in New England’s ancestral ways”.
Other regions had their symbols too. New Yorkers, living in a city of many ethnic groups — old Dutch, Germans, English, Irish, Scots, Huguenots, Africans and Jews — were not content to imitate those damned Yankees. Thus was born the liberty pole, a long mast often crowned with a liberty cap. This harked back to an old Dutch symbol from the long struggle for freedom from Spain, itself harking back to the image of the Roman goddess of Liberty depicted with a long rod and a soft cap. Roman slaves in a ceremony of manumission were touched by the praetor with a rod and given a cap as a symbol of their freedom. This imagery would have been as self-evident to the people of 18th century New York as say, a burly Italian American man in a pin-striped suit speaking Brooklynese and saying he was in the waste-disposal business would signal something else in the mind of present-day New Yorkers.
Maybe the most famous flag of the War, at least after Betsy Ross’s Stars and Stripes, were the Rattlesnake banners carried into battle by the many back-countrymen who rallied to the American cause. The snake is often accurately depicted as a Timber rattler, a native of the long chain of mountains running from Maine to Georgia. The Appalachians, then the furthest frontier of the colonies, were inhabited by and large by descendents of, and settlers from, the North of England, Scots borders and Ulster. These were men who saw the actions of a government in London through the prism of their long and often oppositional history to rule from the center. They clearly saw the threat from Britain as a threat to their way of life and their idea of natural liberty — the liberty to be left alone, especially by governments, especially by a British government, which a thousand years of history had thought them meant nothing but oppression and violence. The rattlesnake and the “Don’t Tread On Me” motto perfectly summed up their worldview. History had taught them that “Liberty or Death” was the stark choice.
The motif was quickly adapted by the Continental Navy and the “Don’t Tread on Me” ensign is still flown in the US Navy in times of national emergency (the last time I believe just after the September 11th attacks).
Of course there is much, much more in Prof. Fischer’s books and I would urge anyone with even the slightest interest in this subject to investigate for themselves. It might just change the way you look at history and the Fourth of July.