The Veteran Exempts (Flags That Inspire Me: A Series)

Even if you’re a flag buff when it comes to American history, I’m willing to bet that you’ve never seen this flag before!  Neither had I, until a good friend presented me with a slightly different version.  I fly it occasionally in honor of the brave men and women who currently serve or have served in our nation’s military.

Little is known of the flag or of those it may have represented.  According to the Flags of the World website, the Veteran Exempts were a home guard of sorts in the northern regions of Ohio and New York, called by their particular militia name because they had previously served during the US Revolution.  It is reported that they were given land grants after helping to win the war and that they were also granted an exemption from further military service.  Evidently, this exemption did not prevent them from serving as volunteers during the War of 1812 when the British decided one last time to try to regain possession of its former colonies in America.

According to a newspaper in New York state, the Plattsburgh Republican (July 17th, 1812 edition), a regiment of the Veteran Exempts was formed of fifty men or a few more who had recently elected their officers.  Their senior officer was reported as Gen. Melvin L. Woolsey, a hero from the Revolutionary War.  The regiment may have participated in the Battle of Plattsburgh.

On July 31st, the same newspaper published a description of the regiment’s flag by Miles Veteranus, which appears to be a pen named used by someone who wished to remain anonymous–perhaps because he was writing on behalf of a group rather than for himself (the Latin miles veteranus could be translated “veteran soldier”).  Interestingly, the newspaper reports that the design is “proposed,” so we cannot be entirely sure if it ever came into existence, much less if it was flown in actual battle.

According to the researchers at the already-cited website, the entirety of the newspaper description is thus:  “It is proposed that it be a black ground with 13 stars for the Union of White, wrought in silver. That in the centre of the Flag there be a Death’s Head, with cross bones under, intimating what must soon, according to the course of nature, be their promiscuous fate, and the immediate one of any enemy who shall venture to contend with them. Under these an open wreath, with this motto, ‘Thy will he done.’ Over the Death’s Head, surmounted as a crest, a rattlesnake with Thirteen rattles, coiled, ready to strike, with this motto in a similar wreath inverted over it, ‘Dont tread on me.'”

One contributor to the webpage proposes that the description can be interpreted in an alternative fashion, resulting in some interesting discussion about how the flag, if it existed, actually appeared.  The version given to me by my friend appears at the end of this blog post.  As a matter of fact, I’m looking at it now as it sits upon the desk near the computer monitor.  In honor of our veterans and current military, I’m headed outside to run it up the flagpole!

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The Betsy Ross Flag (Flags That Inspire Me: A Series)

This being Flag Day in the United States, it seems fitting to feature the predecessor of our national Flag, famously known as the Betsy Ross Flag.  But did good Betsy actually have anything to do with producing the first edition of this banner?  The point is debated among historians today.

According to Betsy’s grandson, William J. Canby, she did.  In a paper presented to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1870 in Philadelphia (Betsy’s birthplace and home), Canby asserted that his grandmother had been visited at her seamstress shop by none other than George Washington (then still a colonel), a relative of hers named George Ross (also a colonel and a Pennsylvania delegate to the Continental Congress), and a third man who is popularly remembered as Robert Morris (“the financier of the revolution”).

Though legend gives Betsy credit for designing the flag, she claimed in her lifetime only to have been responsible for changing the star design from those with six points to the five-pointed version.  The committee of men who came to her for assistance arrived with a rough sketch of their idea.  Canby’s account says that there was considerable discussion about that design.  It included the six-pointed star in the canton (the blue field) because the committee members thought it easier to sew, at least until Betsy demonstrated that she could easily accommodate the other design.  Washington himself sketched out the final design for the banner in her presence and left it with her.  Also left in her care was an old naval flag, the solid stitching of which the committee wanted Betsy to imitate.  Canby, in the paper he delivered to the historical society, said that Betsy Ross went into the flag-making business and the new nation kept her busy from that day onward.  She died in 1836.

Betsy was originally buried in the Quaker Cemetery on Philadephia’s South 5th Street.  A couple of decades later she was moved to the Mount Moriah Cemetery.  As the nation’s bicentennial celebration approached in 1975, Philadelphia decided to honor her by transferring her remains to the courtyard of the Betsy Ross House.  No bones were found in her reputed gravesite.  Bones nearby were moved instead, and we can only hope that the remains in her grave are actually hers.  In the year of her two hundredth birthday (1952) she was honored by the US Post Office with a postage stamp.

Betsy may or may not have had a hand in making the first version of the Stars and Stripes, but national legend holds that she did.  If historical facts interest you, I recommend you visit the Wikipedia site for a list of the evidence for and against the argument that she sewed our first national banner (click HERE).

One thing is sure, and that’s the fact that the so-called Betsy Ross Flag has gone down in our national consciousness as a sign of revolutionary fervor, patriotism, and the constitutional values of our Founders.  For me, those values include smaller government at every level and with less intrusion into our personal lives.  Our Founders knew that tyrany is always predicated upon what’s good for us by those in power.  Many of those Founders were intimately connected to the City of New York.  Wouldn’t they scratch their heads if they knew that the city’s mayor has at his command a powerful committee of bureaucrats whom he has appointed himself and who are now forbidding things like salt, large soft drinks, and even big bags of popcorn?  What would those same Founders say to the idea that people are now being forced to pay for the reproduction-preventing devices and medications of others?  I suspect they’d not only react with bewilderment–they’d also blush!

By the way, the Besty Ross Flag is a symbol for this blog.  If you’ll look in your URL line you will see that it appears there.  You can drag it to your task bar and pin it for easy access to all of the Liberty Professor’s commentary.    In addition, some of you may already know that the Besty Ross Flag is the inspiration for a new banner which is being referred to as the Flag of the Second American Revolution.  It appears at the end of this blog post.  It’s popular with members of today’s Tea Party and the Liberty Professor has been known to fly it proudly himself …. 

The Gonzales Flag (Flags That Inspire Me: A Series)

I’ve already made note in an earlier blog post that I don’t believe America was made great by “rugged individualism.”  That’s just not a good description for the reality that made us strong and viable as a nation.  Perhaps it’s my academic nature to want to be more precise, but I think a better way to describe it is that our forebears had a sense of self-responsibility exercised in the midst of community.  What do I mean by that?  Well, our nation’s founders and our early ancenstors knew that if they didn’t take care of their own needs then they’d be a burden on the rest of society.  In frontier times that could be disastrous for all concerned.  But they didn’t ignore the needs of others.  When neighbors needed help, they were helped.  When a barn had to be raised or crops brought in, folks assisted one another.  They knew that cooperation was the best form of success.  Somehow this was eventually misrepresented as a rugged form of individualism but I just don’t think that’s the whole story.

The flag for today’s post comes from a frontier community known as Gonzales, Texas, located about 65 miles east of San Antonio.  In 1831 this territory was under the control of Mexico.  In order to secure the defense of the town against Commanche raiding parties, the Mexican government provided it with a small cannon.  Political turbulence was on the horizon.  Although Gonzales had pledged its loyalty to Mexican President Antonio Santa Anna, this commitment wavered when a Mexican soldier bludgeoned to death a citizen of the town in September of 1835.   Protests and outrage ensued.  Given that some parts of Mexico were already in revolt, officials decided that the cannon in Gonzales had to be removed so that it would not be used against the military by rebellious “Texians.”

To the credit of the Mexican authorities, they attempted to retake the cannon peacefully.  Colonel Domingo de Ugartechea dispatched a small force to do the job.  The colonial Texians used delay tactics with the patient Mexicans who were still hoping to settle the matter without a fight.  Eventually a larger force was sent with a hundred dragoons, or mounted infrantrymen.  Probably realizing that the military force would finally grow weary of delay (and with rumors circulating about an impending assault), the men of Gonzales went on the offensive.  In the wee hours of October 2, 1835, they approached the Mexican encampment.  They were spotted and fired upon.  Several hours of gunfire followed but without much effect.  In darkness and fog the dragoons had no way to know the size of the attacking force.  They eventually withdrew.  By some reports there were a couple of casualties on the Mexican side and one bloody nose among the Texians, suffered when a rider fell from his horse.

The event has gone down in history as the Battle of Gonzales, but it was little more than a skirmish.  When the Texians returned to Gonzales, someone raised a white banner painted with a star, a cannon, and the revolutionary slogan “Come and Take It.”  In the American press the skirmish was nicknamed “the Lexington of Texas.”  Opposition to the increasingly dictatorial policies of President Santa Anna continued, and his repudiation of the Constitution of 1824 was a major sticking point.  About five months after the skirmish of Gonzales, the Mexicans wiped out the defending Texian garrison at the Alamo Mission in San Antonio.  The Battle of Gonzales went down as the opening salvo of the Texas Revolution, leading to nine years of independence before the Republic of Texas joined the American Union as the Sovereign State of Texas.  The city of Gonzales has adopted a modified version of the flag.  To see it, click HERE.

Among those who worry that their constitutional right to bear arms is threatened by increasing federal regulation, the Gonzales Flag has taken on important significance.  In fact, I think I’ll go out front and raise mine as soon as this blog post is finished.

The Moultrie Flag (Flags That Inspire Me: A Series)

The Moultrie Flag, as Designed by Col. Moultrie for Sullivan's Island Fortification

The second flag in this series also comes from the early days of the revolution and also has connections to South Carolina.  It is the subject of some debate.  Known as “the Moultrie Flag,” it seems to be distinguished from a similar banner known as “the Fort Moultrie Flag” due to a common misunderstanding.

Fort Moultrie was actually a series of fortifications on Sullivan’s Island, SC, established for the defense of Charleston.  The earliest of these was constructed of palmetto logs.  Being softer than other wood, they were a perfect material for a fort that might experience seige and bombardment since they absorb or even sometimes repel cannon fire.  This is reportedly what happened when the British navy attacked in the summer of 1776.   The man in charge of the Continental defenses was Colonel William Moultrie.  The valiant efforts expended by him and by his men saved Charleston from invasion and Moultrie was raised to the rank of Brigadier General.

This blue banner is the one that Moultrie ordered to be flown over the fortification during the Battle of Sullivan’s Island and its design is based upon the fact that his soldiers wore a silver pin on their caps that read “Liberty or Death.”  Moultrie himself claimed that it was the “first American flag to be flown in the South.”  It seems to have been his own design.  Though it was destroyed by the massive amount of ordinance dropped on the fortifications over which it flew, it inspired the colonial defenders and the fort was later named for Moultrie.  It finally fell to the British in 1780 but this did not prevent the colonials from ultimate victory.

Alternative Design Which Has Come to be Known as The Fort Moultrie Flag

According to the enthusiasts at CRW Flags, the banner that has come to be known as “the Fort Moultrie Flag” is not the original designed by Moultrie himself.  Rather than featuring the word “Liberty” inside the crescent moon itself (in imitation of the pin worn by Moultrie’s soldiers), this alternative design features the the word in all capital letters on the bottom of the flag (see second design).  Its derivation is uncertain, but it appears to have become the more popular and better known of the two flags.  This happens to be the particular design that I sometimes fly on my own flag pole at home.  The depth of color and the striking white letters never fail to get attention.

Flag of the Great State of South Carolina

Interestingly enough, the same palmettos that repelled the original invasion of the British at Sullivan’s Island have lent their name to South Carolina, which styles itself as “the Palmetto State.”  Like Moultrie’s design, the state flag of South Carolina features a white crescent in the upper corner (the area of the flag known as the “canton”), though it does not include the word “Liberty.”  To this a large palmetto tree is added to the center.  There have been many other designs since the days of the Revolutionary War that have included palmetto trees and crescents.  They are fitting reminders of the sacrifices of those who established a nation for the principles of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The Gadsden Flag (Flags That Inspire Me: A Series)

Fittingly, the first flag profiled in this series is the Gadsden Flag, often called “the Rattlesnake Flag,” though there are several early American flags that bear the image of a rattlesnake.  At the time of the American Revolution the image of a serpent prepared to strike its foe was a popular one that appeared on coins and in many publications.  This golden banner is also referred to by some as “the Don’t-Tread-on-Me Flag.”  It so perfectly represents my political hopes for our nation that a super-large version of it currently flaps on my flag pole.  A gift of my good friends Nick and Christy (former Navy officers who served our nation with distinction), the flag measures 10 feet by 6 feet!  It’s gorgeous and catches the eye when the wind is blowing.

The Gadsden Flag bears the name of Colonel (later Brigadier General) Christopher Gadsden, a member of the Continental Congress who reportedly presented the flag to Commodore Esek Hopkins, whose name is also sometimes associated with the banner.  He is also remembered as having presented it to the state legislature of his native South Carolina where he served as leader for the Sons of Liberty.  Because the rattlesnake and the “Don’t Tread” motto were so widely used, I doubt that they originated with Gadsden.  As Chris Whitten has written on his informative web page, “We don’t know for certain where, when, or by whom the familiar coiled rattlesnake was first used with the warning ‘Don’t Tread on Me,’ [but] we do know when it first entered the history books”–with that fateful exchange of a gift between Gadsden and Hopkins.

Unfortunatley, as a bold symbol for the Tea Party in the last few years the flag has developed a poor reputation.  The first time I posted it on my Facebook page I was accused of all sorts of vile things, including racism and anarchy.  Such false accusations demonstrate just how far we’ve diverged as a nation from the values of our Founders.  Like the Tea Party itself, the flag’s negative image is quite undeserved.

Let’s take a lesson from the flag itself by noting the motto.  It does not read “Leave Me Alone.”  Too often that’s how it is interpreted, and indeed, some Tea Party participants often suggest that this is what it means.  If our patriotic forebears had wanted to say that, however, they would have put it on the flag.  “Don’t Tread on Me” is a much better motto for a people inspired by liberty because it suggests that as long as we all respect the rights of one another there will be peace and concord among us.  Remember the advice of our parents on this one:  they often reminded us that the best way to avoid confrontation with a serpent is to respect it.  Doesn’t that sound like a great way to run a country?

Americans are sometimes referred to as “rugged individualists.”  I’m not a fan of this idea because when I study our history I don’t see individualists.  I see community members who were responsible and self-governing, but who also joined ranks when harvesting crops or raising the barn of a neighbor.  In the wilderness, individualists died.  Those who set out to go westward alone usually didn’t make it.  There were all sorts of dangers to be faced.  For their own safety, settlers moved not in solitary wagons, but in wagon trains.  They weren’t opposed to cooperation, in fact, they assisted one another is myriad ways.  At the same time they were also self-sufficient.  A responsible member of the community who ran short would be assisted by others, but those who refused to prepare were a dangerous drag on the safety of all.

In our contemporary American political scene, it seems to me that we need to combine this motto (Don’t Tread on Me) with another:  “Your failure to plan does not constitute an emergency for me.”  Far too often, well-intentioned government officials find themselves handling matters that best belong to people themselves, and to families.  Moms and Dads should be feeding and clothing their children, not government.  They should be deciding what and how much their children eat, and they should be teaching them self-control and discipline.  Imagine how many of our schools’ problems would be lessened considerably if children came from homes where they were well-clothed, well-fed, and where good behavior was expected to be the norm.  Imagine how effective our teachers could be if it were easier to dismiss the poor educators and if the good educators didn’t have to worry about feeding hungry kids or defending themselves from personal harm.  In the current political climate, too often we dole out assistance for families while expecting no accountability in return.  How will such policies ever bring improvement?

In a nation where limited power is the rule (because tyranny is too easily engrained in bureaucracy), the federal government should only do what the states cannot do for themselves.  The states should only do what the people cannot do for themselves.  As government at all levels assumes more and more control, the rights of everyone are tread upon.  Is it any wonder that the Gadsden Flag has returned as a symbol for those who are tired of the boot heel of invasive government?  If such talk on my part sounds unreasonable to you, remember the comment of the President’s spokesman during the Gulf Coast oil-spill crisis two years ago when the Obama administration promised to keep “a boot on the throat” of BP.  Obviously, government officials have a responsibility in times of such disaster, but in a nation that prizes freedom and lives by democratic values, no government official should ever be able to get away with such an image.  Holding companies and persons accountable is one thing.  Threatening images such as this, however, are a frightening reminder of how much power we have allowed the federal government to this point.

Don’t step on me, please.  Respect my rights.  Don’t make me pay for the irresponsibility of others who refuse to plan.  Stop “spreading the wealth around” by seizing it from productive citizens.  Don’t beat up big corporations by increasing their taxes because their costs will be passed down to me and will eat away at the retirement investment I’ve made in those companies.  Repeal the laws that now give the United States the dubious honor of having the highest corporate taxes on the planet.  Make it easier for oil and gas companies to extract the natural resources we all need in order to get to work and have our food delivered to the grocery stores.  Stop allowing bureaucrats to produce thousands of regulations a year that hinder employment and business creation.  Put a halt to the federal printing presses that are lowering the value of the dollar and the value of our homes every single day.  Don’t put a government worker between me and my doctor or between my elderly parents and me as we discuss what’s best for them.  Stop telling my insurers that they have to pay for things and offer me coverage that I neither want nor need.  Stop spending my tax dollars to fight with the states who are finally standing up for themselves with regard to illegal immigration.

DON’T TREAD ON ME.  A motto worth preserving?  You betcha.  Mr. Big Government, you’d do well to heed this warning.  At some point the rattlesnake will get enough of your heavy boot and it will strike at your heal.

New Blog Series to Begin on The Liberty Professor

As humans, one of the differences that distinguishes us from other species is our need for symbols.  It seems to me that our higher cognitive ability makes symbols an absolute necessity for us.  Our word “symbol” comes from the Greek words sun and bolein, meaning “to throw with.”  In other words, symbols are things that carry with them more than just themselves.  They make other realities present to us.  A religious symbol brings with it a reminder and perhaps even the experience of divine presence.  Patriotic symbols remind us of our communal past and the values that inspired our nation’s founding.   Some of the most fascinating patriotic symbols are to be found among the many flags that have represented our nation, our various states, and the political entities that were precursors to the states.

Along with the study of flags (vexillology), as a child I was also fascinated with stamp and coin collecting.  Each was a path to understanding more about the world:  its leaders and peoples, the values and ideologies of various cultures and nations, and even the overall movement of human history.  Coins, stamps, and flags all served to remind me of the sacrifices and ideals of those who came before us as well as the overall shifting of human history.  Even as a child I began to realize that there was more to life than just appreciating my own values and my own era.  I also learned to make mature judgments about political ideologies, which ones respected human freedom and diversity and which ones enslaved their constituents.

My maternal grandmother was Avis (Nell) Welch Vignes of Biloxi.  I remember that for my ninth birthday she presented me with the beginnings of a stamp collection.  The gift included a fine album along with some stamps from her own collection.  I took to the collecting of stamps the way a fish takes to water, but exactly a month later the collection was gone, washed away by the waters of Hurricane Camille (August 17, 1969).  From the ruins of our neighborhood in Ocean Springs, however, a new gift emerged.  I discovered a glass mayonnaise jar filled with salt water and used postage stamps–the lost collection of some fellow collector who was also devastated by the rising storm waters.  I never found the owner, so I adopted the stamps as my own and set about drying them and mounting them in a new album purchased some time later.

That jar was like a little piece of history to me.  In it I discovered stamps with portraits of national leaders like Washington and Lincoln, and air mail stamps from the early days of flight.  I also discovered that in the US our postage stamps only depict persons who are no longer living while in many other countries members of living royalty are included.  Of particular interest were stamps from a US series from the time of the Second World War known as the Overrun, or Occupied Nations Series (see below).  They featured the national flags of nations that had been overtaken by Nazi Germany and effectively served as a tribute to the people of those countries who resisted fascism.

For most of my adult life I have flown the American flag in front of my home.  It’s a tradition, and installing a flag pole is a bit of a ritual for me anytime I’ve moved to a new house.  Since the last year or so of the George W. Bush administration, however, my pole has increasingly been decorated not with the national flag bearing fifty stars, but with patriotic flags from the American Revolution.  I believe fervently in the ideals of our nation’s Founders, and in the American dream, but I’m experiencing more and more inner turbulence these days with regard to what America is becoming.  Increasingly, the current 50-star flag reminds me that too many of us are out to get whatever we can from the coffers of the government as long as we don’t have to pay for it.  This is a recipe for disaster.  I also worry that those 50 stars and 13 stripes are flying over too many bases in too many distant nations.  I’m not an isolationist, but I’m not a fan of being the world’s police force, either.  I wonder if the Stars and Stripes still represent to the world our national commitment to liberty, or if they have come to symbolize mere power.

Perhaps as an opportunity for my own reflection, I’ve decided to initiate a new series of blog posts entitled “Flags That Inspire Me.”  I hope you’ll enjoy the series, and that perhaps you’ll be moved to share your own stories.  In order to help readers find the posts in the series, they’ll be marked in a special category of their own (see the category selections on the right side of the screen).  Perhaps the series will be a good reminder of the values that brought our nation into being, and just what we’ll lose if we don’t re-embrace those values wholeheartedly.

If you have children who need a fun way to learn about America’s flag traditions, please share this series with them.  And if you want to do your own study while perusing some colorful flag portrayals, you might visit CRW Flags, one of the most comprehensive sites of its type to be found anywhere on the internet.  On the CRW site you can find sections dedicated to the flags of current countries as well as nations that are no longer in existence.  There is a whole page on historical US flags, which is one of my very favorites on the site.  There are links that take the reader to pages on almost every topic of interest about US flag usage and history, along with this terrific external link that will keep you and your kids busy for hours!  (For those who are fans of J.R.R. Tolkein and his stories, there is even a page on this external link to the flags of Middle Earth!)  If you think your children would enjoy designing their own flag, let them visit the Scholastic page dedicated to the topic.

As always, thank you for reading The Liberty Professor.  Please share it with friends, and please remember to pray for our country and the citizens who make it a great nation.