Romancing History

Tag: Kelly J. Goshorn

Listen Up, Y’All and Learn Some Southern Slang!

southerngrammarchartIf you think y’all is a contraction for ‘you all’ you’d be partially correct. Y’all is always plural referring to more than one other person. Modern English doesn’t have a word for the plural form of you. During the middle ages, thou was the singular from of you and ye was the plural. Over time “ye all” evolved into “y’all.” To further complicate things, if you’re talking to a group of more than three people in the south, you say “all y’all”.

So who put the “y’all” in the Southern slang?

The Scotch-Irish immigrants that journeyed to America in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Although the first known reference of the term was from Queen Elizabeth I in 1573, today it is almost exclusively an Americanism. As it turns out, the Scotch-Irish (also know as  Scots-Irish) weren’t very Scottish. While some had fled Scotland following an unsuccessful rebellion to Ulster in Ireland, the majority were Irish. The rest were religious refugees who settled in Ulster from the English counties of Cumberland and Northumberland. Others were  from Flanders, Germania or France (the French Huguenots like Paul Revere).  What bound them together was their embrace of reformed Christianity and their rejection of established state religion. By the time they emigrated to America, by and large they considered themselves Irish. It wasn’t until the mass immigration during the Great Famine of the 1840s that the term resurfaced as a means of distinguishing themselves from the new Roman Catholic immigrants.

The Sctoch-Irish settled primarily in the south, especially in the areas of the Appalachian mountains. Their unique history and cultural identity is evident in many words that have seeped into the American vernacular.

Rednecks Despite what you may think, the term didn’t arise from the sunburned necks of these early farmers. During the 1600s, protestant insurgents wore a red scarf around their necks to signify their allegiance  to the rebellion against the state churches of Scotland and Ireland.

Backwooods When they arrived in America, they weren’t necessarily greeted with open arms. The English considered them dirty, rebellious, poor and uneducated. In order to avoid the crowded conditions along the eastern seaboard and the discrimination they encountered in the cities and small towns in the colonies, they settled further west. Because they inhabited the areas behind civilization pushing the English colonial frontier, the English settlers said they lived in the backwoods.

hillbillyHillbilly Although following the Civil War the term took on a derogatory stereotype of being backward, prone to violence, and ignorant of modern customs, the term is believed to have originated from the Scotch-Irish themselves. “Hill-folk” referred to people that preferred isolation from the greater society and lived in the Scottish highlands while “billy” meant “comrade” or “companion.”

Some other phrases we can trace to America’s frontier busting Scotch-Irish ancestors:

Barking Up the Wrong TreeMistaken/Picked a fight with the wrong person. When hunting dogs chased raccoons up a tree and didn’t notice the critters jumped into another, they were said to be barking up the wrong tree.

Fly off the HandleLose your temper unexpectedly, overreact. As the Scotch Irish settled the frontier, they felled the dense forests of the eastern woodlands. A sturdy ax was essential to their success. Men carved their own handles and then attached them to ax heads shipped from the East. Because they were crudely fitted together, ax heads were known to fly off the handle, posing the possibility of serious injury to those nearby.

Davy Crockett was a frontier trailblazer of Scotch-Irish ancestry.

Davy Crockett was a frontier trailblazer of Scotch-Irish ancestry.

Ax to GrindPersonal grievance with someone, usually a strong selfish motivation. On the frontier, an ax was sharpened on a sandstone grinding wheel powered by a foot pump. When you were angry enough at someone, sharpening your ax meant you were ready for a fight.

TrailblazerThe first person to do something. This phrase came into being as the Scotch-Irish pushed their way deeper and deeper into the American frontier. Since they were exploring uncharted territory and didn’t want to get lost, they marked a trail by hacking bark off the trees. This method of marking trees was known as “blazing” since the mark resembled the white blaze on a horse’s nose.

The South today is known for its colorful style of self-expression. Although they can leave a Yankee scratching their head, there is a unique charm to these down-to-earth phrases for stating exactly what’s on the speaker’s mind.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite Southern phrases and their translations. If these don’t just dill your pickle, I don’t know what will.

“That possum’s on the stump!” Translation: That’s as good as it gets!

“His knickers are in a knot.” Translation: Look out, someone’s angry!

hissyfit“About to pop!” Translation: You’re full after eating a lot

“A mind to!” Translation: You are thinking about doing something.

“His heart is a thumpin’ gizzard.” Translation: You’re cold-hearted and cruel

“She could start an argument in an empty house.” Translation: You’re cantankerous!

“Cain’t never could.” Translation: You’ll never do it if you don’t try

“He thinks the sun comes up just to hear him crow.” Translation: You’re conceited or vain.

“Hit the bushes!” Translation: Go to the bathroom!

“Huzzy” Translation: a bad woman like the kind that will steal your man!

jerk-a-knot“He squeezes a quarter so tight the eagle screams.” Translation: You’re cheap.

“Cattywampus.” Translation: askew or awry; cockeyed

“Too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash.” Translation: You’re broke.

“That woman is talking with her tongue out of her shoe.” She’s lyin’.

“He’s only got one oar in the water.” Translation: He’s not too bright.”

“Well butter my butt and call me a biscuit.” Translation: Who would’ve known?

chickenhead“You don’t watch out, I’m gonna cream yo’ corn.” Translation: Somebody’s in real trouble!

“He fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.” Translation: You’re not too good lookin’.

“Fat as a tick.” Translation: Full and well-fed.

The richness of Southern speech goes far beyond one or two-word expressions and as you’ve seen, there’s a Southern expression for every occasion.

I’m just happier than a dead pig in sunshine that all y’all stopped by the blog today!

What is your favorite Southern expression? Feel free to share it in the comments below!

 

Pastors & Patriots, The Black Robed Regiment

Evangelist, George Whitefield (1714-1770) preaching to colonial Americans.

Unlike today, the church in colonial and Revolutionary America served as the hub for political debate, as well as for disseminating and discussing current events. And when it came to British oppression, they didn’t hesitate to call for independence. These fiery orators were dubbed by the British as The Black Robed Regiment in reference to their black clerical robes.

Defenders of the British crown found preachers’ support of the Patriot cause particularly detrimental to their efforts to maintain loyalty among the colonists. In the 1770s, most colonists still considered themselves aligned with England. Many parishioners questioned the legitimacy of revolution. From their pulpits, members of The Black Robed Regiment reassured their congregations that their revolution was justified in the eyes of God.

In fact, the British believed so strongly that it was the preaching from colonial pulpits that pushed its citizens into rebellion that many ministers had bounties put on their heads. Loyalists burned the homes and churches of the pastors who preached against British rule. Hatred by the British for the clergy ran so deep that on the battlefield wounded ministers were frequently executed rather than taken prisoner.

One such member of The Black Robed Regiment was the Reverend Samuel West, pastor of the Congregationalist Church of Dartmouth, Massachusetts. West was invited to give the prestigious Election Day sermon in Boston in 1776. In his message he proclaimed that the colonies were already independent and constituted a new nation. “Any people, when cruelly oppressed has the right to throw the yoke, and be free.” Reverend West  further declared, “To save our country from the hands of our oppressors ought to be dearer to us even than our own lives, and, next the eternal salvation of our own souls, is the thing of greatest importance–a duty so sacred that it cannot justly be dispensed with for the sake of our secular concerns.”

But the Patriot Pastors of the Revolutionary era didn’t just preach about liberty while encouraging their congregations to fight against tyranny, they led the way!

muhlenberg

Pastor Muhlenberg revealing his Continental Army uniform.

Pastor Peter Muhlenberg, A Lutheran minister, ascended the pulpit on a cold Sunday morning in 1776 and preached from Ecclesiastes 3, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…” Muhlenberg continued, laying the foundation for the point of his sermon. “In the language of the holy writ, there was a time for all things, a time preach and a time pray, but those times have passed away.” Imagine him standing before his congregation, his voice gaining intensity as he continued. “There is a time to fight, and that time has now come!”

Then, in dramatic fashion, Pastor Muhlenberg removed his clerical robe revealing his military uniform. He challenged his parishioners asking, “Who is with me?” Over 300 men from his church alone joined him in the fight for liberty, volunteering for what eventually became the 8th Virginia Brigade. Pastor Muhlenberg and his men fought in every major engagement of the Revolutionary War and wintered with George Washington at Valley Forge. A native Pennsylvanian, his statue, stands in the U.S. Capitol Building’s Statuary Hall–clerical robes draped over his right arm, sword firmly in his left hand.

caldwell

James Caldwell instructing his men to “Give ’em Watts, boys!”

The Reverend James Caldwell, minister of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethtown, New Jersey, instructed his congregation that “there are times when it is as righteous to fight as it is to pray.” After the British put a bounty on his head, Caldwell went to the pulpit with two loaded flintlock pistols.

Like Muhlenberg, Caldwell also fought alongside his congregants. When the British captured Elizabethtown, Caldwell’s men were short wadding necessary to pack ammunition in their weapons. Without it they would surely be overrun. Caldwell rode to a nearby church and gathered as many hymnals as he could carry. Returning to his men, he instructed them to rip out the pages and use them as wadding in their muskets. Having stuffed the hymns of such classic writers as Isaac Watts down the barrels of their guns, he yelled “Give ’em Watts boys, put Watts into them!” The British referred to Caldwell as the “Fighting Chaplain” and his brave leadership was immortalized in verse.

“Who’s that riding in on horse-back?
Parson Caldwell, boys; Hooray!
Red-coats call him “Fighting Chaplain,”
How they hate him! Well they may!”

According to David Barton of Wall Builders, “modern historians have noted that not one single right asserted in the Declaration of Independence hadn’t been preached from colonial pulpits prior to 1763.” It wasn’t only the British who gave great attribution to the clergy but Founders like John Adams exalted the clergy’s role in stirring the hearts of the people to fight when he said, “the pulpits  have thundered.”

The call to educate the church on political and social issues didn’t end with American victory at Yorktown. The Black Robed Regiment of the Revolutionary era set a precedence that inspired pastors throughout American history to instruct their parishioners on what the Bible said about issues ranging from slavery to civil rights. Patriotic pastors have led troops into battle, ministered to the wounded, written laws and public policy, lobbied our government, founded universities and have been elected to local, state and federal government offices across the nation.

fisherbookSadly, today many pulpits are quiet when it comes to instructing the church on what the Bible has to say about the social and political issues of our day. According to Pastor Dan Fisher, author of Bringing Back the Black Robed Regiment,”Today the church has become marginalized almost to the point of cultural impotency and spiritual irrelevance.”

I’m proud to belong to a church where the pastor does apply Biblical principles to the events shaping the world we live and who challenges us to use our vote to impact our culture. In fact, it was from him I learned of The Black Robed Regiment when he gave his annual Election Day sermon last Sunday.

If you’re interested in learning more about the movement underway challenging America’s pastors to speak up in this ever-increasing politically correct world we live in or to obtain a Christian voter’s guide for your state, please visit the  National Black Robed Regiment and view the short video.

The First Crack in the Presidential Glass Ceiling

victoria-woohullLong before Hilary Clinton’s 2008 run for President of the United States, Victoria Claflin Woodhull put the first crack in the presidential glass ceiling with her ground breaking run for the White House in 1872, nearly fifty years before women would even receive the right to vote. Ahead of her time, Woodhull also tried her hand at stockbroking, newspaper publishing, lobbying, public speaking, clairvoyance and philanthropy.

Although she is not especially well-known today, this 19th century iconoclast, whose unconventional lifestyle and radical political views earned her powerful enemies, attracted more media attention than a Donald Trump press conference. On April 2, 1870, she made national news when she sent a letter the New York Herald stating her declaration to run for president. In the note, she wrote:

“I am quite well aware that in assuming this position I shall evoke more ridicule than enthusiasm at the outset. But this is an epoch of sudden changes and startling surprises. What may appear absurd today will assume a serious aspect to-morrow.”

woodhull-douglass-electionTwo years later, Woodhull was officially nominated to be the presidential candidate for the Equal Rights Party, a political group she helped organize. She faced tough opposition against incumbent Republican Ulysses S. Grant and Democrat Horace Greeley. Woodhull selected Frederick Douglass, the famed ex-slave turned abolitionist as her running mate. Douglass, however,  never agreed to run with Woodhull and never participated in the campaign, choosing instead to give stump speeches for Grant.

At the time, Woodhull was criticized for what were considered to be radical beliefs by many Americans. The heart and soul of her platform was a society free a government that makes laws which interfere with the rights of any individual, man or woman, black or white, “to pursue happiness as they may choose.” In particular, she was singled out for her staunch support for free love, which at that time meant believing that women should have the freedom to choose who they wanted to marry and have the right to divorce their husbands.

Thomas Nast Cartoon, "Get Thee Behind Me, (Mrs.) Satan!" appeared February 12, 1872 in Harper's Weekly.

Thomas Nast’s Cartoon, “Get Thee Behind Me, (Mrs.) Satan!” appeared February 12, 1872 in Harper’s Weekly.

Newspapers across the country disparaged her reputation, notably by newspaper cartoonist Thomas Nast, who literally depicted her as the devil in a Harper’s Weekly illustration. All that bad publicity resulted in Woodhull being evicted from her home and many New York landlords were unwilling to rent to her. Meanwhile, Zula, Woodhull’s 11-year-old daughter, was forced to switch schools as other parents didn’t want Zula to be bad influence on their children.

As the national press tore her apart, Woodhull lashed out at allies who she believed let her down. The last straw came when she called out a former friend, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, who she claimed had had dozens of affairs. When she published these allegations in her newspaper, she was arrested for violating morality laws and spent Election Day in a jail cell.

But this is only part of the story. Woodhull’s eccentricity didn’t begin with her historic run for the presidency–it began the moment she was born. Victoria Claflin was born on September 23, 1838, to an illiterate mother and a petty criminal father. She attended school for three years off and on before dropping out. Victoria was forced by her father to travel in his painted wagon and work as a revivalist child preacher, fortune teller, faith healer, and clairvoyant who communicated with the dead.

Victoria married three times, the first, at age 15, to Canning Woodhull, a philanderer, drunk and morphine addict. Eventually, Victoria, who had two children with Canning, one of whom suffered brain damage which she blamed that on her husband’s drinking. Despite the social stigma of divorce at that time, Victoria left him and filed for divorce but kept his name for the sake of her children.

Victoria and Tennessee reveled in publicity.

Victoria and Tennessee reveled in publicity.

In 1866, Victoria married Col. James Blood, a civil war hero. Blood was a political and social radical who encouraged Victoria’s self-education and interest in women’s rights. He moved the family to New York City where Victoria was joined by her sister, Tennessee. Now reunited, the sisters worked as spiritualists, reviving the lessons learned from their childhood days as clairvoyants.  The two took the city by storm and attracted the attention of railroad and shipping millionaire, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who had an overwhelming desire to communicate with his long-dead mother. So pleased was Vanderbilt with the two women’s abilities that he set them up in business. Woodhull and Claflin opened on Broad Street in 1870 making the sisters not only the first women stockbrokers but the first women to found and run a Wall Street brokerage company. Dressed in matching outfits complete with skirts touching the tops of their boots, considered scandalously short for the times, newspapers dubbed them “the queens of finance” and “bewitching brokers.”

woodhullthweeklypaperUsing money they made in the brokerage business, in 1870 the sisters founded a radical newspaper,  Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. By the next year, Victoria had taken a leadership role in the Karl Marx International Workingmen’s Association. The Weekly, which operated for six years, published the first English version of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’  Communist Manifesto.

The next year, Victoria became the first woman to testify before a congressional committee, addressing the House Judiciary Committee on the subject of women’s suffrage. Her argument was that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments already guaranteed a woman’s right to vote. All that was needed, she said, was for Congress to pass an act guaranteeing those rights. Susan B. Anthony was so taken with Woodhull’s argument that she asked her to repeat it at the National Woman Suffrage Association Convention later that afternoon.

As a conservative leaning person, I sure don’t agree with most of Victoria Claflin Woodhull’s political views but I do recognize that she was a brave woman who risked her name, reputation and livelihood for what she believed in. I will always be grateful for women like Woodhull who put those first few cracks in the glass ceiling.

What about you? Do you find inspiration in the life of this woman history forgot?

 

Victorian Mourning Etiquette

Queen Victoria mourned Prince Albert's death from his death in 1861 until her own in 1901.

Queen Victoria mourned Prince Albert’s death from his death in 1861 until her own in 1901.

Upon the death of a loved one, both men and women during the Victorian era were expected to follow stringent rules on how society expected them to act, dress and conduct themselves during a rather extensive period of mourning. From lavish funerals and horse-drawn carriages to elaborate graveside monuments, it seems the Victorians were obsessed with mourning.

So what precipitated this culture of mourning?

Quite simply, the death of Prince Albert. Widowed at age forty-two, Queen Victoria fell deep into the throws of grief and mourning and proceeded to wear mourning garb for the next forty years of her life. She required that her court do the same. The aristocracy followed suit and new mourning rituals filtered down through all classes of British society.

Adherence to these new mores was seen as essential for showcasing the wealth and class of  Victorian families. Ladies’ magazines such as Cassell’s contained articles with tips for proper mourning including stopping clocks at the moment of death, drawing curtains, and covering mirrors to prevent the spirit of the deceased becoming trapped in its reflective glass. It was not uncommon for the lady of the house to dress her servants in black as a demonstration of an entire household in mourning.

Notice the crape details on her mourning gown.

Notice the crape details on her mourning gown.

According to the Victorian etiquette manual Polite Society at Home and Abroad, upon the death of a husband, a widow was expected to go into a period of Full Mourning, also called First Mourning, for one year. During this time she was only allowed to wear black, symbolizing spiritual darkness, and could not appear in public without it. Neither was she allowed out in public without a black mourning veil, commonly known as a weeping veil, covering  her face. Considered callous and even immoral, luxurious fabrics like furs, satin or velvet were strictly forbidden. Mourning dresses were usually trimmed with crape, a hard, scratchy silk fabric with a distinctively crisp, crimped appearance.

If the woman did not have black attire nor the means to acquire any, she would die a lighter dress. Women from the lower classes or with children to support, were allowed to look for a new husband after this period of Full Mourning. If, however, she had no dependents or serious need for money, she would then enter a period of Second Mourning, which lasted for nine more months. Second Mourning meant a relaxation of the rules, or “slighting the mourning.” The veil, while still worn, could now at least  be raised when out in public, but mourning etiquette dictated that black was still the only color that was permissible for clothing. She could also exchange the uncomfortable crape from her gown for a few subtle lacy embellishments.

Example of Victorian Third Mourning dress.

Example of Victorian Third Mourning dress.

The final stage of traditional Victorian mourning was Third Mourning, or Half-mourning, and lasted anywhere from three to six months.  The color of cloth lightened now to grey tones of blue, green and purple. If she was a woman of means, now was the time that society considered it acceptable for her to start looking for a new husband.

Mourning traditions for men were similar to women in that they were expected to wear dark suits with black hat and or arm bands. A widower who had lost his wife was expected to mourn for two years, however as with women with dependents, if a man had children to care for, society did allow for him to end mourning sooner and go back to conducting business or work. An unmarried man who had lost a close relation such as a mother, sister or cousin, might carry out the full three stages of mourning, same as widows did, lasting the full two to two-and-a-half years. Children were not expected to wear mourning clothes.

 Although jewelry was prohibited during deep mourning, Second Mourning allowed for commemorative jewelry or mourning jewelry to be worn. Victorians revived the art of eye miniatures, tiny portraits of an eye of departed loved one painted on brooches, bracelets, lockets and rings. Another popular form of mourning jewelry popularized by Queen Victoria combined jet, a hard, black coal-like material with woven hair of the deceased.  It was already common practice for people to keep a lock of a loved one’s hair after their death and preserve it as a memento of their deceased relatives. Depending on the amount of hair taken from the corpse, the memento might be sent to hair weavers who would design intricate braided ropes used to make watch-chains or necklaces. Mourning lockets and rings had tiny compartments where a lock of hair or even a tooth could be stored as a remembrance.

mourningring jethairmourningjewelry mourninglocket mourningbrooch_photo hairrope

jaysmourningad

The strict compliance to the rules of bereavement meant appropriate clothing needed to be readily available to mourners. Many shops catered to the trade. The largest and best known of them in London was Jay’s of Regent Street. Known as a kind of warehouse for mourners, Jay’s provided every conceivable item of clothing a proper Victorian family could need. Considering Victorians found it bad luck to keep mourning clothes, especially crape, in the house after mourning ended, businesses like Jay’s were a lucrative business.

With the passing of Queen Victoria in 1901, much of the world left deep mourning behind but for the Victorians, strict adherence to the rituals of mourning brought constant awareness of the fragility of life. A reminder that death was an ever-present possibility and that he or she should lead a good life because death could strike without warning.

Clandestine Eye Jewelry

Eye Miniature brooch, circa 1800

Eye Miniature brooch, circa 1800

Not too long ago, a friend shared a post about Victorian Lover’s Eye jewelry on her Facebook page. I clicked on the link and quickly became fascinated by what I learned.

Eye miniatures, as they were originally known, were small portraits of the human eye painted on brooches, rings, lockets and bracelets. But not just anyone’s eye, these clandestine gifts were exchanged in secret between paramours and effectively concealed the giver’s identity. Only someone with intimate acquaintance — a lover, a spouse, a close family member — would recognize an individual’s eye, thus allowing the gift to be worn in public.

But how did this odd custom become a fad?

Maria Fitzherbert and Prince George !V of Wales

Maria Fitzherbert and Prince George IV of Wales

According to legend, the origin of eye miniatures can be traced to the prince of Wales, who later became King George IV. Young George became smitten with the beautiful, twice-widowed Maria Fitzherbert, who was six years his senior. But according to British law, the prince could not marry Maria, a Catholic. Fearing scandal, she fled to the continent. George, however, was not to be deterred and secretly pursued Maria. On Nov. 3, 1785, the prince sent Maria a written declaration of his love, including a proposal of marriage. To demonstrate his undying affection, he sent a miniature portrait of his own eye, set in a locket, painted by the miniaturist Richard Cosway, one of the celebrated artists of the day. Shortly after, Maria returned to England and married the prince in a secret ceremony on Dec. 15, 1785. The bride, not to be outdone by her prince, commissioned Cosway to paint her own eye in order that she might secretly give a token of her affection. Soon, other British nobility followed the couple’s lead and the fad spread throughout Europe, taking the contintent by storm until about 1820.

Eye Miniature in an Ivory Case with a Mirrored Lid c.1817. .© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Eye Miniature in an Ivory Case with a Mirrored Lid c.1817.
.© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

lovers-eye-ring

Eye Ring, circa1816

Queen Victoria revived the eye miniature fad when she commissioned Sir William Charles Ross to paint portraits of her children and many of her friends and other relatives. A modest resurgence of the art form existed through the the early part of the twentieth century by a few devoted followers of the style, mostly members of the royal family or the aristocracy. Attempts were made by artists at the time to bring the fashion to America with little success.

Eye Miniature with Tears Set in a Brooch with Pearl Frame c.1800. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Eye Miniature with Tears Set in a Brooch with Pearl Frame c.1800.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In the early nineteenth century eye miniatures were adapted as a form of mourning jewelry sometimes referred to as ‘tear jewelry.’ The purpose of the eye portrait was refocused from romance to remembrance. Portrayed with a tear or depicted as gazing through clouds, these miniatures were seen as tributes to loved ones and friends and often evoked powerful emotions. Mourning eye miniatures included symbolism of the gemstones used to surround the painting. Pearls often represented tears when they surrounded an eye portrait. Diamonds portrayed strength and longevity. Garnets indicated true friendship and turquoise was believed to bring good fortune for the deceased in the after life.

Without an inscription, the identity of those painted eyes on these much sought after heirlooms remains a mystery to this day.

What do you think of the lover’s eye jewelry? Creepy, romantic, or just plain weird?

 

How a Snake Inspired the American Revolution

Don't Tread on Me Flag courtesy C. WhittenIf you’re anything like me, snakes give you the heebie-jeebies. And like me, you’ve probably seen that “Don’t Tread on Me” rattlesnake plastered on license plates, bumper stickers, hats and t-shirts. I’ve even seen it waived at political rallies on the news but I never understood what it meant…until now. And I’ve learned a snake may be the most frequently occurring symbol used to rally the colonists to unite and break the oppressive rule of the British crown.

Today we know it as the Gadsden Flag with its bright yellow background. But how did it come to represent the liberty sought by our forefathers?

Like so many things, it all began with Benjamin Franklin.

Join_or_DieIn 1751, Franklin wrote a humorous editorial in the Pennsylvania Gazette suggesting that in cordial response to Britain’s policy of sending convicts to America, America should return the favor by sending rattlesnakes to Britain. Years later during the French & Indian War, he resurrected his idea and created this first American political cartoon, a wood carving, using the image of a segmented snake. Urging the thirteen colonies to unite in common defense,  Franklin played on a myth common at the time that a dismembered snake could grow back together if the pieces were realigned before sunset. Each segment is labeled with the initial of one of the thirteen colonies however he lumped all of New England together (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island) under the notation N.E. as the head of the snake, ready to strike.

revere-join-or-dieThis image was reprinted in newspapers throughout the colonies, and was often adapted by the publisher. Left is Paul Revere’s modified “Join or Die” serpent from the masthead of the Boston Journal, July 7, 1774.

Historians believe it was Franklin who wrote anonymously to the Pennsylvania Journal as “An American Guesser”, expounding on his use of the snake and advocating for its use as a national symbol:

  • No eye-lids so she is always on the watch, always vigilant.
  • Doesn’t begin an attack, but once in battle, she doesn’t surrender.
  • Her defenses are hidden (in her mouth) so she appears weak. And though the bite is small, it’s deadly.
  • She doesn’t attack until after she gives warning.

Franklin’s reptile resurfaced years later, once again as a symbol to unite Americans against the oppressive Stamp Act. This time the previously segmented viper had transformed into the coiled rattlesnake we recognize today.

Navy-Jack-clip-artAccording to historian Christopher Whitten, in 1775  the Continental Congress got word that two ships would be arriving in America laden with arms and powder to resupply British troops. The Congress authorized the building of  four ships to form the first American Navy and undertook a secret mission to capture those ships and their precious cargo. Colonel Christopher Gadsden, a member of the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress, appointed Commodore Esek Hopkins as the Commodore of the Navy. Believing the Commodore needed his own personal standard, Gadsden presented Hopkins with the yellow, snake-coiled “Don’t Tread on Me” flag . Many speculate that John Paul Jones, first lieutenant aboard the Alfred, most likely ran the standard up the gaff before the mission commenced. The snake even appeared across the red stripes of the first Navy jack.

CMMFlagOnce again, the coiled reptile was reprinted in publications throughout the colonies. Since there was no distinctive American symbol at the time, the “Don’t Tread on Me” image appeared on uniform buttons, banners, and flags. The Culpeper County Virginia Minute Men adopted the iconic coiled rattlesnake on their flag but added the words of Virginia Minute Men Organizer Patrick Henry, “Liberty or Death.” Also seen on currency, the Georgia-snakeseal from a 1778 $20 bill from Georgia (right), Gadsden’s home state, proudly displayed a serpent ready to strike. The new currency was financed by property seized from loyalists. The motto reads “Nemo me impune lacesset,” or “No one will provoke me with impunity.”

Its odd to think that if Franklin had his way, we might revere the snake instead of the bald eagle. While I take great pride in my heritage and the history behind the Gadsden flag, I’m glad this reptilian image remains a symbol of government oppression and not my national identity.

Do you think the snake would have made a good icon for America?

 

 

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