The First Navy Jack Flag: A Maritime Symbol of Freedom and Resistance

The First Navy Jack FlagAmong pre-Constitutional American flags is the First Navy Jack – the current national maritime flag and an official symbol of the United States government to this day. But it’s not just the “first” Navy Jack – it’s also the current Navy Jack. In fact, it’s been used several times throughout America’s history for our Navy, particularly during periods of nationalist and patriotic fervor. Where did the flag come from? And how did it become the current standard of the United States Navy?

The symbolism of the flag is familiar to vexillologists and American patriots alike, bearing the 13 stripes to signify the original colonies that rebelled against the British Crown. Imposed on top are familiar symbols from the Gadsden Flag. First, the rattlesnake, this time uncoiled and not ready to strike. Second, the familiar legend “Don’t Tread On Me,” often rendered without the apostrophe, as a warning to tyrants everywhere that the seemingly docile rattlesnake can quickly coil and strike when the time is right. This combination of American flag features along with a slogan of resistance to tyranny have created an iconic national flag. But it’s not the original First Navy Jack.

In fact, no one is quite sure what the original design was. Commodore Esek Hopkins commissioned a “striped” jack, which many historians believe was the 13 stripes and nothing more. The earliest attested flag is from 1880, over 100 years after the formation of the Continental Navy and nearly a century after the formation of the United States Navy, and looked like what we now call the First Navy Jack. This design is found in History of the Flag of the United States by Admiral George Henry Preble, an influential history tome of the time. While this doesn’t mean that the early Navy didn’t fly the First Navy Jack, modern scholarship generally agrees that people believed this to be the design of the flag because of an incorrect pressing plate from the time of the American Revolution.

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