A Flag For a Season – or a Reason?

A flag for the holiday season? This might seem like a classic “Christmas Tree” flag, but in fact, it is an historic American flag, first appearing around 1775.  Oddly enough, it is known as “The Pine Tree Flag” or the “Appeal to Heaven Flag” or the “Washington Cruisers Flag”.  It was originally used by a squadron of six cruisers commissioned under the authority of George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army.  Some historical accounts say that Washington, ever the diplomat, chose the emblem himself, believing that the New England Pine Tree motif served as a symbol of unity between the northern and southern colonies.  On July 26, 1776, the Massachusetts General Court established the Pine Tree Flag as the flag of the state navy.  It also became popular with privateers sailing fromMassachusetts. 

There is some confusion about the Pine Tree on the flag and the Liberty Tree, a famous elm tree that stood in Boston near Boston Common.  Ten years before the American Revolution, colonists in Boston staged the first act of defiance against the British government at the tree. The tree became a rallying point for growing resistance (Sons of Liberty) to the rule of Britain over the American colonies. The British ridiculed the Liberty Tree and during the siege of Boston, a party of Loyalists spitefully cut the tree down and used it for firewood. It was estimated to be 129 years old at the time. This act only fueled colonial anger and as resistance to the British grew, flags bearing a representation of the Liberty Tree were flown to symbolize the unwavering spirit of liberty.  It is possible – in fact, probable – that the “elm” tree evolved during those pre-revolution years to the “pine” tree chosen by George Washington.

The Pine Tree (or elm tree) makes sense as a symbol on this early, revolutionary flag.  But why the phrase, “An Appeal to Heaven”?  Many historians have concluded that it is inspired from the writings of John Locke, a 17th century English philosopher and physician regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers.  His influence on liberal theory and classical republican thought is reflected in the United States Declaration of Independence.  In one of his works, “Two Treatises of Government”, Locke uses the phrase “appeal to heaven” several times, suggesting that after all other alternatives of seeking justice have been exhausted, only an “appeal to heaven” remains.  In other words, knowing they were up against a great military power, the colonists believed they were sustained by still a greater power.

There are variations of revolutionary era flags with trees as part of the design which include the Continental flag and the Bunker Hill flag.

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