It always interests me how trees are so often intertwined with our culture and history. The July celebration of our independence is a good time for a history lesson. The Liberty Tree was an elm tree in Boston where protesters of English rule would congregate. It became a symbol of individual liberty and resistance to tyranny, and during the Revolutionary War several flags were designed with a tree that represented the Tree of Liberty. One flag in particular has an important message.
The first American Navy consisted of six schooners paid for and pressed into service by none other than General George Washington in 1775. He attempted to convince the Continental Congress that he needed a Navy immediately, but true to form, the Congress endlessly debated on the need for a Navy, how to organize and fund ships, and so on until Washington’s patience ran out and he funded the ships himself.
There was a need for the schooners to fly a “Jack,” a flag identifying the ship’s nationality. Colonel Joseph Reed, an aide to General Washington, suggested the idea of a flag consisting of a white background with a green pine tree in the center, and the words Appeal to Heaven inscribed below. The flag was approved and became the first naval union jack used on American ships.
The tree on the flag represented the Liberty Tree. Why a pine was used may have been to make the flag a variation of the New England Pine flag, which had a pine tree on a white background, specifically an eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). White pine was also well known to the ship building industry, being used for ship masts and to obtain pitch used to make ships water tight. The phrase “Appeal to Heaven” was taken from a famous document called the Second Treatise on Government by John Locke, an English philosopher.
This document greatly influenced American revolutionists like our founding fathers. In chapter 3 Locke writes: …“for wherever violence is used, and injury done, though by hands appointed to administer justice, it is still violence and injury, however colored with the name, pretenses, or forms of laws… war is made upon the sufferers, who having no appeal on earth to right them, they are left to the only remedy in such cases, an appeal to heaven.”
The phrase on the flag was appropriate because the colonials were fighting the greatest military power on Earth at that time, and their only hope was help from a still greater power, thus their “APPEAL TO HEAVEN.” The obstacles to becoming an independent country were incredible. An army of farmers and tradesmen against a highly trained super power, a congress that could agree on nothing, a strong resistance to the individual colonies being placed under a central government, the slow response of France in providing aide, no money and no foreign country wanting to lend any. I can only conclude that our victory in the Revolutionary War was miraculous, and only achieved with the help of a higher power. During this time of celebration of our liberty, pause and give thanks for what we have been given.
Steve Roark is the Area Forester in Tazewell, Tenn. for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.