Symbols of a Developing American Republic

Symbols of a Developing American Republic

May 13, 2020

Can you wear your cause? British soldiers typically did. In their fight for the King, they wore a British crown on their equipment. It was stamped on their cartridge boxes, embossed on their hat plates, and engraved on their belt plates.

But could Americans wear a republic? When the people ruled, what was the symbol that replaced the crown? Americans had more than one answer. They emblazoned their hats, powder horns and cartridge boxes with patriotic and republican words and symbols.

The objects in this case are the types used by American soldiers who served in the New York Campaign of 1776. Many of the objects in this case feature symbols of the republic, from a leather wallet stamped with “Success to Washington 1775” to a gun engraved with the image of an eagle fighting a crane from the Continental three-dollar bill.

Benjamin Flower Case Study

1. Colonel Benjamin Flower

In this detailed portrait (ca.1779), Continental Army Colonel Benjamin Flower stands in the splendid uniform of an artillery officer. Note the shape of Flower’s belt tip, possibly the popular eagle-fighting-the-crane symbol from the Continental three-dollar bill. Flower points to the cupola of the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall), where Congress and the Pennsylvania State Government met. Behind him, cannons are piled in front of a military warehouse. The artists, Charles Willson Peale and his brother James, served alongside Flower early in 1776. The painting is on loan from the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House and Museum.

2. Trunk

Even in the “republican” American Army, rank had some modest privileges. Officers were allowed space in an army wagon for a “field chest” to carry their personal belongings.
This example (ca.1776) descended in the family of Lieutenant Colonel Persifor Frazer of Pennsylvania. Frazer was a member of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety and an early activist for the abolition of slavery in that state. He joined the army as a captain of the 4th Pennsylvania Battalion in January 1776. That year, he served in New York City in the early summer and then at Ticonderoga until December. It is on loan from Mrs. Brian D. Draper and Graham Dougherty.

3. Fusil (Firearm)

The owner of this gun wore his cause on his weapon. The barrel, thought to be made by Ambrose Peck of Rhode Island, bears the motto “To Defend Constitutional Liberty and Property.” The silver metal plate, or escutcheon, behind the lock is engraved with a design copied from a Continental three-dollar bill. The symbol is of an eagle fighting a crane and the phrase Exitus in Dubio Est (Latin for “The outcome is in doubt”). An appropriate message for the outmatched American Army, it signified that a small bird can still defeat a big one. It is on loan to the Museum from the William and Candace Raveis Collection.

4. Pocketbook (Wallet)

This leather wallet has the motto “Success to Washington 1775” stamped into the front. Its owner clearly wanted Washington to win the war. When this wallet was stamped in 1775, Washington was the newly appointed Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. By the end of the New York campaign in 1776, he had suffered a great deal of failure. It is on loan to the Museum from the Winterthur Museum, Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont.

5. Sash

Early in the war, some American officers wore a red silk sash around their waist or over their shoulder. Usually, they simply served as a colorful symbol of rank to help soldiers find their officers in the field. This silk sash (ca.1776) descended in the family of Lieutenant Colonel Persifor Frazer of Pennsylvania. It is on loan to the Museum from Mrs. Brian D. Draper and Graham Dougherty

6. Coat

Many American troops joined the army wearing civilian clothing, like this coat (ca. 1770-1775), which is on loan from a private collection. Made of brown woolen broadcloth lined with white silk, it is typical of the plain clothing worn by most farmers and artisans in America at the time. These were the so-called “middling sort” men who were the bulk of the army in 1776.

Take a closer look at the objects, symbols, and stories in the Museum's "New York Campaign" gallery, and dive deeper into the Museum's galleries from home any time with our newly enhanced Virtual Museum Tour.

Editor's Note: The case images reflect a snapshot in time in the Museum's galleries and may not fully reflect the objects currently on display at the Museum or in the Virtual Museum Tour.

Explore more "case studies" of the Museum's galleries:
Witnesses of the “Shot Heard Round the World”
Before Equality: The King in American Life
General George Washington's 'Military Family'

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