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Was America’s name first uttered on Prospect Hill on New Year’s Day 1776?

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This New Year’s Day, the City of Somerville near Boston will be hosting an auspicious event—the 238th annual commemoration of General George Washington unfurling the first flag of America. The Grand Union flag was made of thirteen red-and-white stripes and a British Union Jack and was in use as our national standard from December 1775 until late 1777. On the first day of what would become our nation’s “Revolutionary Year,” tradition has it that Washington raised the Grand Union flag to signify the birth of the newly reformed Continental Army—the army of ’76. But a recent discovery suggests that that New Year’s Day in 1776 may have also included another first—the phrase “United States of America” may have debuted along with our new army and flag.

Exactly which flag was raised on Prospect Hill has been the subject of debate since a revisionist theory was offered by flag-expert Peter Ansoff in 2006. From the sparse primary source documentation, Ansoff concludes Washington hoisted a wholly British device—a British Union Jack, or the “King’s colors”—to inaugurate the new American army on New Year’s Day, 1776. At a recent flag-expert conference for the North American Vexillological Association (viz. “vexillology”—the study of flags), I presented four years of research on Prospect Hill with my booklet, Revisiting the Flag at Prospect Hill: Grand Union or just British? (available in early 2014). Revisiting the Flag at Prospect Hill contains many fascinating nuggets of historical revelation, including the first documentary evidence of the phrase “United States of America,” and as-yet-unpublished connections between American Founders and officers within the East India Company; whose flag, interestingly enough, happens to be virtually identical to the Grand Union flag, and in use for over a hundred years prior to the Grand Union’s adoption as our first national colors.

From the introduction of Revisiting the Flag at Prospect Hill:

“[Ansoff] asserts that no striped union flag flew at Prospect Hill, but rather only a British Union Jack. Being that both flags have a British Union in their design, the distinguishing characteristic between the two would be the horizontal red-and-white stripes. Ansoff’s theory rests primarily on two legs—1. In the years running up to the revolutionary era, English colonists in an ad hoc manner sometimes flew British Union Jacks with words like “Liberty” emblazoned on them as a “symbol of united resistance to British policies”—and, 2. George Washington and other eyewitnesses used the term “union flag” to describe the events that had transpired on Prospect Hill, New Year’s Day, 1776. As mentioned earlier, [this booklet] rebuts this theory and will show through primary source records it was entirely appropriate for Prospect Hill eyewitnesses to have referred to the Grand Union flag as a “union flag,” and the escalating war, late date, and other catalyzing events toward independence, makes it highly unlikely for the British Union Jack to have been utilized in an official capacity inaugurating the Continental Army’s new establishment. One eyewitness to the event mentions the “striped continental” being flown that day, and although somewhat confusing in either describing one or two flags, the bottom line is, stripes still flew at Prospect Hill. Further, secondary accounts report the striped flag at Prospect Hill and are supported by its coinciding and widespread adoption throughout the revolutionary enterprise. If these secondary reports were erroneous, as Ansoff suggests, nowhere were they corrected.”

This debate over which flag flew at Prospect Hill has been covered by other journalists such as Danielle Dreilinger in 2009 with her Boston Globe piece Unfurling history on Prospect Hill and, most recently, by Chris Orchard of Patch.com with New Research May Contribute to Prospect Hill Debate and John Bell’s Boston 1775 posting, Annual Flag-Raising in Somerville, 1 Jan.

One of the most intriguing discoveries of research into this event was uncovering what stands as the first documentary evidence of the phrase “United States of America”—to my amazement, this only added to a discovery of the phrase I had made earlier, in 2012, which still stands as the first publicly printed incarnation of our national name. (NBC News link to that story: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/48693538)

This past July 4th, the Christian Science Monitor published the latest foray into our national name’s etymological past in a piece entitled, Who coined 'United States of America'? Mystery might have intriguing answer. What’s fascinating is that Washington’s aide-de-camp, Stephen Moylan, Esq., wrote “United States of America” in Washington’s Cambridge Headquarters—what is today known as Longfellow House—on January 2, 1776, the day after the Prospect Hill flag raising. Key to the mystery is what Washington’s aide wrote eight days earlier.

As explained in the Monitor article:

“On Christmas Day 1775, just eight days before his "USA" letter, Moylan inscribed on the flap of a document: “On the service of the United Colonies.” Yet on Jan. 2 he wrote of the “full and ample powers from the United States of America.” What could have caused this shift? There are two significant events that occurred between Christmas Day 1775, and Jan. 2, 1776, that could have precipitated the shift in tone. The first was King George III's speech to Parliament, which arrived in the hands of the Continental Army on New Year’s Day. In it, George III condemns the rebellion in the colonies, calling his American subjects “deluded” and their leaders “traitorous.” He accuses the conspirators as having designs for an “independent empire,” and lays out his plan to expand British land and naval forces in America and seek the assistance of foreign steel to crush the rebellion. For many Americans, this was the last straw. It was their Rubicon – all-out war was now inevitable.The second event, also on New Year’s Day, was the unfurling of what is known as the first flag of America, the Grand Union flag, which featured 13 characteristic red-and-white stripes with the British Union Jack in the canton. The Grand Union flag was raised by Washington on Boston's Prospect Hill in a ceremony to commemorate the inauguration of the Continental Army of '76 – the reformed army that Washington had worked tirelessly to build. It must have been a heady occasion, and perhaps the phrase “United States of America” was sounded that day.

The debut of Washington’s reboot of the Continental Army—what he referred to as the “new establishment”—in addition to the New Year and new flag, might have been the perfect venue for previewing the new name of our nation, which, evidently, was immediately put into documentary practice the following day.

This New Year’s Day, 2014, I have the distinct honor and pleasure of presenting this evidence and more at the City of Somerville’s Prospect Hill Grand Union flag-raising event, which will include a processional led by a reenactor portraying General George Washington on horseback and other reenactors and venerable groups such as Lawrence Willwerth with the oldest chartered military organization in America, the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts. Details of the event can be found at Boston.com, Grand Union flag to be raised at Prospect Hill Park. I can’t think of a better way to ring in the New Year expressing our patriotic gratitude, enjoying the blessings of liberty and prosperity that our forefathers (and mothers) engendered at the birth of our nation. I hope to see you all there!

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