For this year’s Flag Day in Part 1 of this series, we explored the plausibility of any causal relationship between the first flag of America—the Grand Union flag—and its nearly identical twin, the official colors of the British East India Company. Both the Grand Union and East India Company flags feature a British Union Jack in the upper-hoist corner with red-and-write horizontal stripes. It’s important to note that the East India Company’s flag had been using its red-and-white striping convention for more than a century before the debut of this exact design over America’s new Continental Navy and Army. Famous revolutionary warrior Lt. John Paul Jones hoisted the Grand Union over the new Navy’s flagship, the Alfred, on December 3, 1775, while Gen. George Washington, commander-in-chief of the new Army, raised the new American colors in a military ceremony on Prospect Hill overlooking Boston (present-day Somerville) on New Year’s Day, 1776. The very next day, the words “United States of America” first appeared in documentary form at the hand of Washington’s aide-de-camp, Stephen Moylan, Esq.
Moylan, writing from what is today known as Longfellow House, was commenting his bewilderment that Congress had yet to declare independence despite the British King having accused the leaders of the rebellion as having designs for an independent empire. “Look at the King’s speech” said Moylan, “it is enclosed in this, or in the General’s letter to you … – will they [Congress] not declare what his Most Gracious Majesty insists on they have already done?”
“Look at the King’s speech – it is enclosed in this, or in the General’s letter to you … will they [Congress] not declare what his Most Gracious Majesty insists on they have already done?” — Stephen Moylan, Esq., Aide-De-Camp for Gen. Washington, Jan. 2, 1776, in his letter which features the first documentary appearance of the phrase “United States of America”
It was during this critical, formative period that a new flag began flying in the colonies. Firstly, over the military, but eventually in the following months it was used in celebrations toward independence, emblazoned on continental currency as a symbol of unity, and by the end of year, had garnered official recognition from foreign nations. It was these “naval salute” rituals that signified that America had arrived on the international stage as a nation among nations.
But what has nagged vexillologists (flag experts) for hundreds of years is the fact that this new flag wasn’t new at all, because it was virtually identical to the East India Company (EIC) colors. Adding complexity to the mystery is the role that the EIC played in the formation of the new nation, including being the entity that sent numerous shiploads of tea to the colonies in 1773 sparking the international incident known as the Boston Tea Party. While there hasn’t been any “smoking gun” evidence discovered which would undoubtedly connect the two flags, examining the business dealings between key American founders and officers within the EIC may begin to illuminate a track which might explain the similarity or even the fact that the two flags might possess the same pedigree.
“Robert Morris was the original owner of the first two ships of the Continental Navy and provided the wharves and staging area for the outfitting of the navy’s first flotilla. The Grand Union flag debuted on Morris’s ship hoisted by John Paul Jones on December 3, 1775.”
Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris are both pivotal figures in the secret organizational aspects of the American Revolution; one famous, one not so much. But what has yet to be published are the significant business dealings between these two men with some of the most influential economic forces in Mother England.
Robert Morris: The Unsung Primary Mover
The Philadelphia merchant and banking magnate, Robert Morris, was a principal of Willing, Morris & Co., and is largely an unsung primary actor in the Revolutionary War. Some of the highlights of his pivotal role in American nationhood include being one of only two men to sign all three founding scripture—the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution; Morris was the original owner of the first two ships of the Continental Navy and provided the wharves and staging area for the outfitting of the navy’s first flotilla with the Grand Union flag debuting on Morris’s ship hoisted by John Paul Jones on December 3, 1775; Morris procured much of the ordnance and supplies for the war effort—much of it drawn on personal credit marshaling the resources of his global trading network; only he and Benjamin Franklin sat on both secret committees of congress which conducted all foreign negotiations and supplies acquisition; Morris was the sole naval agent and de facto commander of the Continental Navy for much of war (after Esek Hopkins resigned his commission); Morris personally provided the financing necessary ($16 million in today’s dollars) to transport the Continental Army to Yorktown securing victory over General Cornwallis, and, hence, American victory; in the later stages of the war, Morris was responsible for floating the entire fledging colonial economy (after the continental currency crash) buoying it with his own personal credit in the form of “Morris notes”; he has been honored with the sobriquet “financier of the American Revolution” and, as the Superintendant of Finance—the first executive office in American history—became the “architect” of the American free-market economy; Morris hosted George Washington at his home for the entire proceedings of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia; and owned the first “White House”—a Philadelphia city-house that headquartered both the Washington and Adams administrations… among numerous other pivotal contributions. He was accused of war profiteering by Thomas Paine in 1779 and after a congressional investigation, exonerated. Morris was considered the wealthiest American coming out of the war. In the 1790s, he co-owned and managed an astounding 6 million acres in America and when an international bubble burst with the rise of Napoleon in Europe he went bankrupt and was thrown in debtor’s prison. It is most likely Morris’s ignominious and dramatic fall that caused his critical contributions and pivotal role during the birth of our nation to have been largely overlooked by later historians.
Without Robert Morris’s industry, savvy, and international connections, the outcome of the Revolutionary enterprise may have been entirely different. His contributions, it would seem, were at least on par with the great luminary Founders and Framers we all readily recognize, Washington, the Adamses, Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, Lee, Hamilton, Henry, Madison, etc., etc. It’s important to note that the ideological freedoms expressed so elegantly by Jefferson’s pen were equally matched by the creation of a free-market economy not burdened by the capricious whims of the crown; two chief characteristics—ideological and economic—framing what the new nation would become, creating a clean break from Old Europe.
“Commerce should be as free as the air.” — Robert Morris, the “architect of the American economy” and “financier of the American Revolution.”
How Morris becomes a key figure in the Grand Union story is seen through his extensive international reach and connections to officers in the East India Company. Morris was a prototype for today’s globalist, innovating a latticework of shipping lanes and trading methodologies, that, today, comprise the primary means of capital interlocution for the predominant institutions on the planet, namely, multi-national conglomerates. Morris biographer, Charles Rappleye, stated that Morris, “was a global capitalist at the very dawn of global capitalism,” and was known to say things like, “commerce should be as free as the air.”
Morris built on these ideas—free enterprise, free capital markets—and these concepts and memes became the foundational pillars of the American free-market economy—a crucial accompaniment to the religious, social and ideological freedoms brought to the world by what is, today, known as one of the oldest operating constitutional democracies.
“No Men in this city can serve the East India Company with more Fidelity or Advantage than the House of Willing and Morris of this City Merchants.” — Philadelphia politician and merchant Thomas Wharton writing a Director of the East India Company in 1773 following the tea incident in that city
During the tea crisis in 1773, Morris’s connection to the East India Company is first established by his negotiations as warden of the port of Philadelphia with the captain of the tea ship Polly. Morris intercedes between protestors and convinces the captain to return to England with his cargo. In Boston, this conflict resulted in an entirely different outcome via the Boston Tea Party. Benjamin Franklin, at that time acting as colonial agent in England, was alarmed by this reckless act in Boston and offered to recompense the company for its losses.
Morris’s actions with regard to the Philadelphia tea incident are lauded in a letter written to Thomas Walpole, Esq., of England, by Thomas Wharton on December 27, 1773.
“I am sensible that no Men in this city [Philadelphia] can serve the East India Compy with more Fidelity or Advantage than the House of Willing and Morris of this City Merchts,” wrote Wharton.
The letter’s recipient, Thomas Walpole, Esq., and his partner, Joshua Vanneck, were heavily involved with the East India Company. “During the early 1750s, the financiers Samson Gideon, Gerrard and Joshua Vanneck, and Joseph and Michael Salvador had advanced large sums to the Company…” Thomas Walpole was elected director of the East India Company in 1753, “…he took an active part in the affairs of the Company.”
Walpole was a proponent of promoting increased free trade with the colonies and opposed British policies in America. In Autumn of ’75, Walpole states in the British House of Commons, “My sentiments, however, have been confirmed, not altered, by our late unsuccessful experiments in America; as I have constantly disapproved every Act for imposing taxes on the colonies.”
On January 13, 1776, Walpole wrote to Lord Grafton, “Surely, my Lord Duke, it is exceedingly imprudent for ministers, both with respect to themselves and their country, to push things to an extremity whence it be impossible to bring them back, except by such means as must lay a foundation of division and animosity in the nation for many years to come.”
In 1769, Walpole was partners with Benjamin Franklin in the Grand Ohio Company, sometimes known as the Vandalia Company or the Walpole Company. These were land speculation deals in North America, “to buy from the Crown a large area on the borders of Virginia, recently ceded by the Six Nations.”
“With regard to the sentiments of the people here [England] in general concerning America, I must say we have among them many friends and well-wishers. The dissenters are all for us, and many of the merchants and manufacturers.” — Benjamin Franklin, July 7, 1773
Benjamin Franklin, living in London as a colonial agent to the Crown for the decade prior to the Revolutionary War, was absolutely familiar with the affairs of the East India Company, and as an aspiring oceanographer, philosopher, and scientist, was certainly familiar with the company’s flag.
In 1773—a few months before the Boston Tea Party—Franklin comments on British support for America: “With regard to the sentiments of the people here in general concerning America, I must say we have among them many friends and well-wishers. The dissenters are all for us, and many of the merchants and manufacturers.”
This hints at diverging interests between the emerging mercantile class and the old system of English peerage. When the Boston Tea Party occurred, Franklin was shocked calling it “an act of violent in-justice,” and offered to raise funds or reimburse the company for the lost cargo. Upon his return to America, Franklin worked closely with Robert Morris on many affairs of the Continental Congress including both men holding seats on the two secret committees.
Franklin defends Walpole in a letter dated Dec 27, 1775, from Philadelphia, “I can hardly suspect Mr Walpole of the Practise against you which you mention, especially as he was then expecting to have Lands of his own in America, wherein the Productions you were about to introduce must have been beneficial.”
Walpole’s brother, the Hon. Richard Walpole, was captain of an East-Indiaman until 1758 when he changed to the ‘steady and profitable profession of banker’ He joined the London firm of Cliff, Walpole and Clarke, and in 1763 acted as agent for Clive and East India Company…”
Immediately following the tea incident in the colonies, in 1774, Robert Morris enters into business relations with Sir Francis Baring of the Baring Bank—what was to become England’s oldest merchant bank. Sir Francis Baring, 1st Baronet, not only advocated for liberalization of trade with the American colonies through the course of the war, but eventually became a director of the East India Company by 1779 and the company’s chairman by 1792. The “Barings had begun to invest in the East India Company in 1776… By 1783, Francis Baring had been accepted as the leader of the City (London) interest on the Court of Directors of the East India Company.”
What is remarkable about the Barings is that they eventually played a pivotal role in engineering the single most significant expansion of American power in her first few decades of existence.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series about Sir Francis Baring’s relationship to the new nation and a contemporary constitutional framework to the Magna Carta which may have influenced both the East India Company and eventually the economic architecture of the “United States of America.”
And if you hadn’t read Part 1 click here to check that out. And click here for Part 3.