National Symbols

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The creation of an independent nation in 1776 required much more than simply building the structures of government. A universe of images needed to be created both to represent the nation to the wider world as a sovereign entity and to promote the inculcation of nationalism among the populace. Devising symbols was a complicated and lengthy process. Formal symbols to represent the nation, including flags, seals, and the buildings that would house the government and its leaders, would arise from the efforts of charged committees and commissioned individuals. Building on old traditions from Europe and symbols of resistance during the decade leading up to the American Revolution, common popular use of such symbols as the liberty tree or liberty pole would also come to represent the nation and build unity as the Revolution progressed and the nation came into being.

motto, seal, and flag

On 4 July 1776 the Continental Congress charged a committee consisting of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson to devise both a motto and a seal for the newly declared nation. The motto, approved during the 9 September 1776 meeting that also gave the United States of America its name, was "E Pluribus Unum," or "Out of Many One." The eagle, which became the central symbolic element in the Great Seal of the United States, emerged only after three committees spent six years attempting to distill a wide variety of ideas into one effective visual symbol. The eagle was incorporated in each of the designs. First as a detail representing Germans as one of the six primary immigrant groups to arrive in America, next as a small central figure among several in Philadelphia attorney William Barton's drawings, and finally as the centerpiece of the seal's design as described by Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson. Thomson's report combined elements from each of the committees. He specified that the centerpiece of the seal be a distinctly "American Eagle." Critical to this design was a large shield emblazoned with the colors of the flag across the breast of the eagle and standing without supporting figures. Thomson wrote in his report to Congress that he meant the arrangement to portray the United States as standing alone and relying only "on their own virtue." The eagle, which suited the predominance of classical motifs adorning buildings in the designs for the capitol because of its own associations with ancient Rome, symbolized both strength and vigilance. Congress approved the design on the same day it was presented, 20 June 1782. A flag to stand as a symbol for the nation both on and off the battle-field was perhaps the most immediate need. Here the desire to incorporate the idea of thirteen states united in common cause resulted in a flag of thirteen red and white stripes to the right of a circle of white stars on a field of deep blue. This iconic ancestor of the present-day flag was adopted by Congress on 14 June 1777.

local initiatives

In the immediate wake of the Declaration of Independence, the project of creating national sentiment was largely local and designed to rally the population to continue its resistance. The liberty tree or liberty pole, which originated during the Stamp Act protests of 1765, was reborn as a critical location for organizing resistance up and down the eastern seaboard. The importance of the liberty poles as a symbol was not lost on the British army, which cut them down almost as soon as they rose up. Holidays to replace those like the King's Birthday, which acted as a reminder of allegiances, also got their start in local Revolutionary festivities. Philadelphia chose 4 July 1777 to mark the first anniversary of independence and in 1783 Boston declared the day an official holiday. The creation of a holiday to mark the birth of the political nation served during the war as a rallying point for the development of a truly national sense of purpose. Following the war, the holiday marked national commemoration of the deeds of founding while retaining its political character in the mixing of contemporary politics in local celebrations.

personifying america

Personification of the nation and of its ideals was a more complicated issue. America had long been represented in the Western world by Indian figures, often shown juxtaposed in the British press with the classical female figure Britannia and frequently used as ornamentation on such things as colonial seals, book endpapers, and maps. Portrayed as bare breasted and dressed in feathered skirt and headdress, the Indian was designed to project an "uncivilized" image in contrast to the "civilized" Britannia and was disliked by the former colonists. In its place, an American Revolutionary elite promoted allegorical classical symbols in order to incorporate the authority of ancient republics and and desirable national virtues such as independence, strength, and unity into visual terms. Columbia, most commonly used to represent a female "America," made a bow to the discoverer of the New World. Americans preferred classical, or classically inspired figures like "Liberty" or "Columbia" as appropriate representations within which they could invest their own identity and which were deemed appropriate to take their place with similar European figures. Columbia was chosen to pay homage to Christopher Columbus as the discoverer of America. In Columbus virtues of independence, individualism, and courage could be incorporated into a mythos and a history for a nation with only a dependent colonial past. The immediate post-Revolutionary decades saw writers like Joel Barlow in The Vision of Columbus use Columbus as a central figure. "Columbus," "Columbia," and "Columbian" appeared in the name of everything from colleges to towns, newspapers, and the proposed new federal district. By 1829, Washington Irving's romantic biography of the explorer as divinely guided and prevailing against the odds to discover America itself suited a burgeoning sense of American exceptionalism.

vernacular symbols

The side-by-side development of those formal symbols of the nation and the rise of vernacular symbols fulfilled different cultural needs. Brother Jonathan, his progenitor Yankee Doodle, and his descendant Uncle Sam were used for everything from political commentary to sales advertising. They stood in variously for the average American (the "people") or the government itself. They evolved over time to express certain ideas about who Americans were. Yankee Doodle began his cultural life as a derisive term for colonists by British soldiers. Reclaimed in military victory during the war, he was gradually transformed into Brother Jonathan, a naïve, albeit full of common sense, representation of the new citizen in his new nation. During the War of 1812, Uncle Sam emerged from soldiers' jokes. Uncle Sam represented less the common man than the government itself—a sort of booster and nag regarding duty as the federal government consolidated its power institutionally and culturally. The symbols coexisted for varying periods of time within the newspapers and periodicals of their day.

The emergence of the United States of America came with a series of formal political actions: adopting the Declaration of Independence in 1776; fighting the Revolution; concluding the Treaty of Paris in 1783; and ratifying the Constitution in 1788. To make the principles underlying those actions manifest was critical to obtaining the domestic support necessary to defend the nation, first in war and later in the contentious peace that left competing factions all seeking to define the nation in their own terms. It was crucial to do the work of creating not only a nation but a people with affective bonds that linked far-flung Americans in a sense of interdependent union. To the wider and more skeptical world, the assertion of sovereignty through the use of well-known symbolic motifs signaled that there was indeed "a new constellation" in the heavens as the Continental Congress formally proclaimed in approving the design of the national flag.

See alsoFlags; Monuments and Memorials; Music: Patriotic and Political; "Star-Spangled Banner."


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Gretchen A. Adams


National Symbols