In April 1775 when the American Revolution became an armed conflict the people of America were torn. For the most part, the conflict was not against the King or the Empire, but against Parliment. They saw themselves mostly still as loyal subjects and Englishmen.
In August of that year that the King issued A Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition. He formally declared the colonies in rebellion. The people in America who thought the king may be an ally, now realized he was NOT on their side. From there the true independence movement began to grow.
Many of the early flags of the rebellious colonies show the mixed emotions of the time. Feeling like they were still British, the Union Jack showed prominently in the corner of the flags. The solid colored field varied from colony to colony.
It was not until The Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution on June 14, 1777, that the now familiar United States flag began to make an appearance. Thirteen white stars on a blue field, red and white stripes alternating. The idea of still being British was cast off as the new nation struggled for independence. A new flag symbolized a new destiny.
The flag in the picture above is one of the earliest surviving flags. It has been dated back to 1775-76 and was passed down through the hands of a Pennsylvania family. Reportedly it was flown in combat at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. From that, it has taken the name of the “Monmouth Flag.”
The war was over and the United States had come fully into existence. Thirteen independent states now faced the world as one nation under the auspices of the Articles of Confederation. This document was the model of government that was created during the Revolution and for lack of a better term, it sucked. The Confederation Congress had very little power to set national policy. It had no power to tax and was often wholly beholden to a majority of states in most decisions. There was no way that the country would stay together under such a system.
In May of 1787 delegates from the states came to Philadelphia for a convention tasked with “fixing” the Articles of Confederation. Instead, they would toss them out. Over the summer and in incredible secrecy, a new government took shape and form.
Issues of representation in the government and the type of government drew the most debate. Centered on the creation of a strong central government in a Federal system, the convention was split most the time. Some thought that the states should be the primary driver of the government. Others thought it should be the people of the nation. Small states demanded the same power as the larger states and the issue of slavery hung like a dark cloud.
Sunrise or Sunset?
On September 17, 1787, the final version of the document was signed and sent to the states for ratification. For the duration of the convention George Washington had presided as the president, his wisdom and leadership was instrumental in keeping the process moving. During the signing, the eminent Dr. Benjamin Franklin had perhaps one of the prescient observations of the summer. In his notes on the convention James Madison relayed the following:
Whilst the last members were signing it Doctr. FRANKLIN looking towards the Presidents Chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that Painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. I have said he, often and often in the course of the Session, and the vicisitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun. (Madison’s Notes for September 17, 1787)
The photos at the top of the article show a reproduction of the chair that Washington sat in as President of the Convention. They show the sun motif that so vexed Franklin. It is currently on display at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
The Sword of Washington
There are several swords in various museums that are purported to have belonged to General George Washington. The Museum of the American Revolution has this particular sword of Washington on display.
The Washington family has indicated that this particular sword was carried by Washington at the begging of the Revolution. The hilt is silver with a lion head pommel. It is very much like the swords carried by many gentlemen if the period. While this one may have never been carried into battle it does have an interesting story behind it.
In 1769 the Virginia House of Burgesses passes the “Virginia Nonimportation Resolutions”. These resolutions were designed to boycott imports from Britain in favor of locally made items. This was in response to not only an economic downturn but also to several attempts by the British Parliament to implement new taxes on the colonies. The idea behind the act was to get the colonies to stop buying finished good from Britain. When British merchants started feeling the heat, they may lobby on behalf of the colonies.
George Washington, who was sitting in the House at the time, was instrumental in getting the resolution passed. In 1770, in support of the resolution, Washington purchased the sword above from a Philadelphia craftsman eschewing his previously owned sword that was purchased via his British agent.
On a side note, this particular boycott did not go so well. Many Virginia merchants basically ignored it and eventually, it sort of withered away. By 1771 the agreement was abandoned.
Shot in the Age of Sail!
Ah Yes! The Age of Sail. Tall ships, billowing canvas, wooden hulls cutting through the open water. It’s enough to make one a little teary eyed imagining the wind rushing past as you close into your enemy. Once you catch them what do you do? Turn your ship broadside and cut loose with your powerful cannons? Of course, but that old solid shot cannonball is only going to do so much damage. What you need is something, special…
In the picture above is an example of three different kinds of shot that would be fired from cannons during a naval engagement. Each would be used for a specific purpose against the enemy.
On the far left is Bar Shot. This consisted of two halves of a regular solid cannonball connected by an iron bar. When fired it would tumble through the air and tear into the enemy ships rigging and sails. No ropes, they could not control the sails. Big holes in the sails, nothing to drive the ship forward. They would be sitting ducks.
In the center is Chain Shot. Like the Bar Shot it consisted of two halves of a ball but this time connected with a chain, sometimes as long a six feet! When fired the balls tumble and the chain becomes fully extended. It would tear into the rigging and sails and cause devastation.
The far right has the real beauty. Grape Shot, or Cannister Shot. Usually wrapped in a canvas bag, or sometimes held in a metal canister, this shot effectively turned your cannon into a large shotgun. Not only could it tear through sails and ropes, but it was most effective against the personnel of the enemy.
These are not all the special tricks but used right they could take an enemy down before you even got close enough to board them. The end of the Age of Sail and the advent of armor sort of diminished their use over time.
The Tyrant Falls to Pieces
On May 10th, 1775 the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia to figure out what was going on. Less than a month before British troops and Massachusetts militia met in a running battle at Lexington and Concord. The King’s troops now were penned up in Boston. Surrounded by thousands of militia from all the colonies. The simmering tensions between the two sides had now become a real war. Congress now was tasked with figuring out how to govern the colonies and fight a war. The bigger question that was debated became what was the end game for the colonies?
Some wanted a peaceful resolution and full integration into the British empire. Some wanted full-on independence. The debate ran through the august body until June 7th, 1776 when Richard Henry of Virginia presented his famous resolution.
Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
The question was now on the table and less than a month later the resolution was passed. The fear and uncertainty gave way to jubilation as the Declaration of Independence was read throughout the colonies. Nowhere was it greeted with more enthusiasm that New York City.
On July 9th, 1776 General Washington, currently in New York with the army, had the declaration read to the troops and people. The assembled crowd was so moved that they immediately headed to a park in Bowling Green. There they found what they were looking for.
A few years earlier a large statue of King George III had been erected. Astride a horse, wearing Roman garb, made of lead gilded in gold, it hovered over the park. The assembled crowd proceeded to tear the statue down. The gold peeled away and the lead melted down for musket balls. They would take the tyrant down and use his body to defend their new nation.
In the photo above we have two pieces of the actual statue that have survived all these years. Symbols of the new-found spirit of independence that was sweeping the land. The gold still covers them. The perfect representation of what came into being that day. The glint of gold from the old world, peeled away for the earthy strength of the new world.