American Flag’s Origins: A Symbol of Unity or Dissent?

American Flag’s Origins: A Symbol of Unity or Dissent?

June 13, 2020

Monmouth flag (left) and Forster flag (right)

Flags are symbols, meaningful objects that stand for beliefs, values, loyalties, and commitments. Because of their emotional and conceptual power to represent ideas and communities, the display and treatment of flags has often served as a powerful method of civil disobedience.

We don't often think of it, but the American national flag emerged from the Sons and Daughters of Liberty's widespread use of flags and other symbols as part of their methods of civil disobedience against the legal authority of the British Empire. The flag flown by the Continental Army at Boston in early 1776 added thirteen stripes to the colonial design of a single-color field and a design based on the flag of Great Britain (consisting of the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew) in the canton, the upper left corner. Those stripes remain on the American flag today. While they stand today for the American nation, in 1776 they stood for defiance against what many Americans considered the unjust laws of their home British government.

Almost a year after the Declaration of Independence, Congress replaced the British union in the canton with stars representing the states, the "new constellation," creating the basic design of the American flag that we still have today. As Americans altered their flags to reflect rapidly changing political developments, they dismantled and reused British flags, echoing the dismantling and reconstituting of authority and law going on all around them.

At the Museum of the American Revolution and in our Virtual Museum Tour, guests can see two original flags that demonstrate the changes Americans made to their flags as part of their resistance to the growing conflict between the colonies and their home government. One of these flags, called the “Monmouth flag” (pictured on the left above) because it is thought to have been carried in the 1778 Battle of Monmouth, shows the typical design of a colonial militia flag with a single color field and the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew from the flag of Great Britain in the canton.  The other original flag, known as the Forster Flag (pictured right in the photo above) after the family it descended through, shows stitching and variations in fabric that indicate alteration of the canton to replace the flag of Great Britain design with stripes, probably by Massachusetts citizens early in the Revolution.  It may be that the white stripes in the new flag (six on one side of the flag and seven on the other) were cut from the white fabric of the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew. The Forster Flag is very likely one of the first efforts to depict the United Colonies and later United States with stripes. It is one of several surviving Revolutionary period flags still surviving that show the British union either cut or painted out of the design.

These flags are a reminder of the early years of the country when American protesters against British authority, which had long been accepted in many communities of the colonies as the proper legal government, used symbols to resist authority they considered tyrannical. 

By: Dr. Philip Mead, Chief Historian and Director of Curatorial Affairs

The Monmouth flag is on loan to the Museum from the Monmouth County Historical Association. The Forster flag is on loan to the Museum from Brian and Barbara Hendelson. Take a closer look at the two flags below or see them in the Museum's galleries with our Virtual Museum Tour.

Monmouth flag (left, on loan from the Monmouth County Historical Association) and Forster flag (right, on loan from Brian and Barbara Hendelson)
Monmouth flag (left, on loan from the Monmouth County Historical Association) and Forster flag (right, on loan from Brian and Barbara Hendelson)
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