Stars and Stripes and Patriots

By Joe Craig, Park Ranger

For a comparatively small park tucked away in the New York countryside, Saratoga NHP has a great deal of international flavor.  Besides affecting history on a global scale, the Battles of Saratoga were fought by a diverse bunch of individuals.  The flags on display in the battlefield visitor center attest to the different nations who had troops present in 1777.

Of course the flags in question are modern, which has caused some visitors to opine that flags contemporary to the battles are more appropriate.  The biggest objection to such a notion arises from the fact that several nations represented didn’t exist in 1777, except as geographical entities.

This being a site devoted to the War for American Independence, it’s not too surprising to discover that the choice of the modern US flag gets more comment than many of the others.  Some visitors have suggested: “Why not at least show the colonial American flag?  You know… the original Thirteen Stars and Stripes!”

This idea has one small but insurmountable problem: when we were colonies we did not have a flag with thirteen stars and stripes.  And more importantly, when we did have a flag with thirteen stars and stripes we were no longer colonies.

It is rather distressing for park rangers to consider that for many Americans, US History is summed up in a few important dates.  July 4th 1776 is arguably the most ingrained.  Yet despite the significance of that date, many visitors make continued reference to the “Thirteen Colonies”, the inhabitants thereof as “colonists” and the armed forces that defended it as the “colonial army”, long after said colonies had declared themselves “Free and Independent States”.  As of 4 July 1776, the real “Colonists” were those who wished to remain in the British political and economic system, not those who declared for Independence.

When a ranger brings up this historical goody, the usual reply is “Oh.  I meant the Patriot side: the Americans”.  And with a tug on his USA baseball cap, the visitor has put himself back on the Path of Truth.

Unfortunately for the visitor’s statement, there were people living in North America who considered their pro-Independence neighbors anything but patriots.  Those Americans loyal to Britain saw themselves to be the real patriots, while those who sought separation were traitors, unfit to breathe the air.  These Loyalists (or as some prefer, “Royalists”) were far from an effete minority and were as willing to risk their lives, fortunes and sacred honour for the British.

It is arguable that the Loyalists had a better claim to being called “patriots” than their bumptious neighbors.  In their favour is the fact that the British had defined treason rather carefully, and the definition is a checklist of the doings of the pro-Independence sorts:

“It is high treason, by the law of England to imagine the death of the King [all those hangings in effigy], Queen-consort, or of the heir apparent of the crown; to levy war against the King [“shot heard ‘round the world” &c.] or adhere to his enemies [seeking aid from Louis XVI of France and Carlos III of Spain]; to counterfeit the King’s coin or his great or privy seal [replacing it with state seals and eventually one for the United States]….”  Law, Encyclopaedia Britanica, 1772

English Law was not the only thing for a Loyal Subject to cite.  The notion of the “Divine Right of Kings” had worn a bit thin since Charles the First had been the recipient of a radial makeover in 1649, but it was agreed by Royalists of varying stripes that George III was King of England & c. “by grace of God”.  A (former) friend of George Washington, Reverend Jonathan Boucher noted in one of his sermons:

“Kings and princes, the evil as well as the good, reign by God’s ordinance and subjects are bound to obey them…”

Not surprisingly, the pro-Independence folks were quick to point out that their cause was Divinely Inspired.  Anyone who thought otherwise was in for some rough handling…like Jonathan Boucher.

So, it appears we should consider the folks who want Independence “Rebels” and the supporters of the Crown “Loyalists”. It would make for a fairly straightforward delineation of the two sides.

Oh, that it were only so simple!  To make murky waters even muddier, it turns out that the pro-Independence folks decided the supporters of the Crown were the unpatriotic lowlifes, and sometimes referred to them as “rebels”.  In a bizarre bit of logic, some even opined that those who supported the Crown lacked the necessary “virtue’ to be freemen, and therefore be forced to serve in the Continental Army in place of those who wanted Independence.

All told, it makes for a difficult task to give a proper name to the opposing sides of the populace during the War for Independence.  Both sides knew themselves to be Divinely Sanctioned “patriots” and cheerfully labeled (perhaps libeled) their opponents “rebels”.

We could use long phrases like “pro-Independence Americans” or “Americans Loyal to the Crown of Britain”, but they are quite a mouthful.  Something more succinct would be to use labels that the opposing sides in 1777 would have recognized: “Whig” (opposed to the Crown) and “Tory” (opposed to independence), but for many today they are unfamiliar and meaningless terms.  In the name of sanity and brevity, it might be best to label those who supported Independence as “Rebel Americans” and those who supported the British as “Loyal Americans”.

Whatever labels we assign them, the people who filled the ranks of the opposing sides knew beyond doubt or argument that they were right and their opponents were irredeemably wrong.  Both sides invoked ideals of “liberty” to support their cause resulting in a prolonged and often fierce conflict.

That the visitor center even is able to display a flag of the United States of America is the result of the victory of pro-Independence supporters: the victors become the “Patriots”.  But every so often in the guest book, a visitor will sign in their name followed by the letters “UEL”: United Empire Loyalists.  They will certainly make it known that their Loyal ancestor supported the real patriotic side.

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