Question: The stars and stripes on the D.C. flag a.) originate with a local militia that served in the Revolutionary War; b.) are representative of the three commissioners (stars) that governed D.C. before we had a mayor and the two states (that’s right, bars) from which D.C. was conceived; c.) are borrowed from George Washington’s family crest.
The correct answer is c.). This goes to prove that: a.) we just can’t get enough of this Washington guy; b.) D.C. is still one big plantation; c.) Mr. J—— is always right.
The answer is d.) all of the above. Last week, in a rather circuitous way—hell, in a completely arcane and partially plagiarized way (see the stultifying classic Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, by 18th-century epistolary novelist Samuel Richardson)—I alluded to a minor debate at Washington City Paper over whether or not a writer of a letter to the editor had once solved the mystery of the D.C. flag prior to the establishment of this column. Our own Mr. J—— swore this to be true, but a fairly in-depth search of our index failed to turn up the letter in question. That is, until Mr. J—— channeled a small part of his gray matter away from film and music criticism, zoning debates, art direction, and the advantages of mass transit to the archives to prove me wrong. He did.
I was going to write this week’s piece in the form of a literary apology, but then I thought, why punish the readers? However, apologies should be extended to Hank W., who, back in 1989, set us straight about the flag. Hank, if you’re still out there, a T-shirt’s waiting, baby. One has already been dispatched to Robert Lumpkin, who, last Friday, was the first person this decade to provide the correct answer.
The D.C. flag originates with George’s great-grandfather, the first member of the Washington clan to alight on New World soil. According to The World of George Washington by Richard Ketchum, John Washington was a clergyman booted from his Puritan parish for being “a common frequenter of ale houses.” Perhaps to drink in peace, John caught the Sea Horse of London to America in 1657. The boat ran aground at the beginning of the return trip, and John disembarked and set up shop in Virginia.
Tippler John aside, the Washington family was evidently quite respectable—or at least quite rich. The English ancestral home, Sulgrave Manor, dates back to 1500. (Hence, the origin of the name of a local blue-blood watering hole, the Sulgrave Club. John would be proud.) During the reign of Elizabeth I, Robert Washington commissioned two heraldic stained-glass windows to commemorate the marriages of both his father and son. The shields, which now reside in the Corning Museum of Glass, both have a stunningly familiar grouping of stars and bars on the left-hand side.
George Washington’s immediate family was not so well off as his British forbears—that is, until half-brother Lawrence married into the Fairfax family and built Mount Vernon, complete with family crest atop the fireplace mantle. Through a complex chain of deaths, and a considerable number of marriages within the family, our founding father eventually occupied the estate.
The family crest was featured on George Washington’s bookplates (seen here), but it wasn’t until 1792—the year of his re-election as president—that the symbol appeared on a government document. That year, Maj. Andrew Ellicott, the Surveyor General of the United States Army, featured the crest in the cartouche (decorative scrolls) that adorned his modification of the L’Enfant Plan, according to Dr. Philip Ogilvie, the current archivist of D.C.
In 1938, an act of Congress rendered the stars and bars an official symbol of Washington. However, as longtime residents may have noticed, it wasn’t until recently that the flag became prominently featured on license plates, Department of Public Works trucks, and the like.
The reason, says Ogilvie, is that about 10 years ago, a group of District officials convened to refine the use of the city’s graphic images. Ogilvie and others were concerned that the D.C. Seal (see “Washington’s Mundane Mysteries No. 1,” 8/26 and 9/2), which should be reserved for official city documents, was being misused. The seal was being slapped on vehicles, and often misdrawn—at times featuring an all-too-appropriate Justice sans blindfold. A mayor’s order declared that the stars and bars would replace the seal as the common symbol of Washington.
Though the flag became ubiquitous, its origins were no more clear to the public than they ever were. Throughout the history of the city, people have thought the flag represented “all kinds of fanciful things,” Ogilvie acknowledges. (A few years ago, while on vacation, Ogilvie was himself startled to see the crest hanging in the window of a Parisian bookstore that catered to Anglophiles.)
But as of today, the only mystery that remains is whether or not Washington, a notoriously modest man who recognized the perils of his own deification, would have approved of the use of his crest to represent the capital city.