Pine Tree Flag

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Pine Tree Flag
Pine Tree Flag
A modern redrawn version of the flag
Use Other
Proportion 2:3
Adopted October 20, 1775
Design A pine tree with the words "AN APPEAL TO HEAVEN" written above it, with a white field behind it.
Designed by Joseph Reed

The Tree Flag (or Appeal to Heaven Flag) was one of the flags used during the American Revolution. The flag, featuring a pine tree flag with the motto "An Appeal to God," or, more usually, "An Appeal to Heaven", was used originally by a squadron of six cruisers commissioned under George Washington's authority as commander in chief of the Continental Army in October 1775. It was also used by Massachusetts' state navy vessels in addition to privateers sailing from Massachusetts.[1]


An American school textbook depicting the flag alongside the Gadsden Flag, the Grand Union Flag, a colonial New England flag, the Bunker Hill flag, and the Flag of the United States.
The pine tree flag with the motto "An Appeal to Heaven"

The design of the flag came from General Washington's secretary, Colonel Joseph Reed. In a letter dated October 20, 1775 Colonel Reed suggested a "flag with a white ground and a tree in the middle, the motto AN APPEAL TO HEAVEN" be used for the ships Washington commissioned.

Subsequently, the Massachusetts General Court established the flag of the state navy on July 26, 1776 with a resolution that stated in part, "that the Colours be a white Flag, with a green Pine Tree, and an Inscription, "Appeal to Heaven."[2]

Pine tree symbolism[edit]

The pine tree had long been a New England symbol being depicted on the Flag of New England flown by colonial merchant ships dating back to 1686. Leading up to the Revolutionary War it became a symbol of Colonial ire and resistance.

The white pine found in New England, specifically the eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) with heights exceeding 150 feet, was highly desirable for constructing masts in shipbuilding. Twenty years after arrival in the new world, the Pilgrims harvested and exported these pines as far as Madagascar. Due to lack of supply of suitable lumber on the island, England reserved 24 inch (61 cm) diameter trees under the Mast Preservation Clause in the Massachusetts Charter in 1691. The trees were identified by a Surveyor of the King’s Woods (a position of preferment) who would in turn appoint deputies to survey and place the broad arrow symbol on the tree from three hatchet slashings denoting property of the Crown.

The broad arrow statutes were not immediately enforced, due to England having access to other sources of timber in the Baltic. However, when this source diminished, additional broad arrow policies acts were passed and enforcement increased in North America.

The statutes required colonists prior to harvesting trees from their property to have a King's Surveyor mark the larger diameter trees with the broad arrow and then purchase a royal license to harvest the trees not marked with the broad arrow. The colonists resented the strictures on the timber used for their needs and livelihoods. Prohibitions were disregarded and they practiced "Swamp Law", where the pines were harvested according to their needs regardless of statutes.[3]

In New Hampshire enforcement led to the Pine Tree Riot in 1772, where a statute had been in effect since 1722 protecting 12 inch diameter trees. After being fined and refusing to pay for possessing trees marked with the broad arrow, a New Hampshire mill owner leading other mill owners and townsmen assaulted the Sheriff and his Deputy sent to arrest him by giving him one lash with a tree switch for every tree which the mill owners were fined, cutting the ears, manes, and tails off their horses, and forced them out of town through a jeering crowd. This was one of the first acts of forceful protest against British policies. It occurred almost two years prior to the more well-known Boston Tea Party protest and three years before open hostilities began at the Battles of Lexington and Concord.[4]

Months prior to Colonel Reed's suggestion for using the pine, the pine was used on the flag that the Colonists flew at the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775. The historically accepted flag has a red field with the green pine tree in the upper left corner as depicted in John Trumbull's The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill, June 17, 1775 painting. Provided Colonel Reed was aware of the Bunker Hill flag, there was precedent to incorporate the pine in another Colonial martial flag.

Given the pine tree's significance to the Colonists and since the flag was to fly over Colonial warships, the pine offered an appropriate and ironic symbol due to it flying atop the very structure the British had sought to harvest the white pine for.

"Appeal To Heaven"[edit]

The phrase is a particular expression of the right of revolution used by British philosopher John Locke in Second Treatise on Civil Government which was published in 1690 as part of Two Treatises of Government refuting the theory of the divine right of kings.

Locke's works were well-known and frequently quoted by colonial leaders, being the most quoted authority on government in the 1760-1776 period prior to American independence. Thomas Jefferson was accused of plagiarizing Locke in certain sections of the Declaration of Independence by fellow Virginian delegate Richard Henry Lee.[5]

Prior to Colonel Reed's suggestion and Massachusetts General Court establishing the Pine Tree flag as the standard of the Massachusetts navy, "an appeal to Heaven" or similar expressions had been invoked by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in several resolutions, Patrick Henry in his Liberty or Death speech, and the Second Continental Congress in the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. Subsequently, it was used again by the Second Continental Congress in the Declaration of Independence.

While a People forcibly resisting rulers was a concept expressed by other notable British philosophers such as John Milton's The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) and Algernon Sidney's Discourses Concerning Government (1698) as well as legally treated by British jurist Sir William Blackstone in Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765), Locke's "An Appeal To Heaven" phrase succinctly connotes that it is Heaven who a People appeal to when forcible resistance is resorted to.

The phrase connotes after a long continuance of unjust abuses of power by a government have been patiently suffered and all means of redress by earthly authority are ineffectual and exhausted, a People are left no alternative than to appeal to a morally just Supreme Judge for final adjudication and hopeful vindication of their cause through forcible resistance to achieve redress either through the acquiescence, alteration, or abolishment of the offending government. The People's appeal is based upon the rectitude of their intentions (approving consciences), moral character capable of self-government, and justness of cause.

The specific phrase is used by John Locke's in four chapters in Second Treatise on Civil Government:

Chapter 3, Of The State of War, Section 20 and Section 21

..nay, where an appeal to the law, and constituted judges, lies open, but the remedy is denied by a manifest perverting of justice, and a barefaced wresting of the laws to protect or indemnify the violence or injuries of some men, or party of men, there it is hard to imagine any thing but a state of war: for wherever violence is used, and injury done, though by hands appointed to administer justice, it is still violence and injury, however coloured with the name, pretences, or forms of law, the end whereof being to protect and redress the innocent, by an unbiassed application of it, to all who are under it; wherever that is not bona fide done, 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.

...Had there been any such court, any superior jurisdiction on earth, to determine the right between Jephtha and the Ammonites, they had never come to a state of war: but we see he was forced to appeal to heaven. The Lord the Judge (says he) be judge this day between the children of Israel and the children of Ammon, Judges 11: 27. and then prosecuting, and relying on his appeal, he leads out his army to battle: and therefore in such controversies, where the question is put, who shall be judge? It cannot be meant, who shall decide the controversy; every one knows what Jephtha here tells us, that the Lord the Judge shall judge. Where there is no judge on earth, the appeal lies to God in heaven. That question then cannot mean, who shall judge, whether another hath put himself in a state of war with me, and whether I may, as Jephtha did, appeal to heaven in it? of that I myself can only be judge in my own conscience, as I will answer it, at the great day, to the supreme judge of all men.[6]

Chapter 15, Of Prerogative, Section 168

The people have no other remedy in this, as in all other cases where they have no judge on earth, but to appeal to heaven: for the rulers, in such attempts, exercising a power the people never put into their hands, (who can never be supposed to consent that any body should rule over them for their harm) do that which they have not a right to do. And where the body of the people, or any single man, is deprived of their right, or is under the exercise of a power without right, and have no appeal on earth, then they have a liberty to appeal to heaven, whenever they judge the cause of sufficient moment. And therefore, though the people cannot be judge, so as to have, by the constitution of that society, any superior power, to determine and give effective sentence in the case; yet they have, by a law antecedent and paramount to all positive laws of men, reserved that ultimate determination to themselves which belongs to all mankind, where there lies no appeal on earth, viz. to judge, whether they have just cause to make their appeal to heaven. And this judgment they cannot part with, it being out of a man's power so to submit himself to another, as to give him a liberty to destroy him; God and nature never allowing a man so to abandon himself, as to neglect his own preservation: and since he cannot take away his own life, neither can he give another power to take it.[7]

Chapter 16, Of Conquest, Section 176

...What is my remedy against a robber, that so broke into my house? Appeal to the law for justice. But perhaps justice is denied, or I am crippled and cannot stir, robbed and have not the means to do it. If God has taken away all means of seeking remedy, there is nothing left but patience. But my son, when able, may seek the relief of the law, which I am denied: he or his son may renew his appeal, till he recover his right. But the conquered, or their children, have no court, no arbitrator on earth to appeal to. Then they may appeal, as Jephtha did, to heaven, and repeat their appeal till they have recovered the native right of their ancestors, which was, to have such a legislative over them, as the majority should approve, and freely acquiesce in.[8]

Chapter 19, Of The Dissolution of Governments, Section 241

But farther, this question, (Who shall be judge?) cannot mean, that there is no judge at all: for where there is no judicature on earth, to decide controversies amongst men, God in heaven is judge. He alone, it is true, is judge of the right. But every man is judge for himself, as in all other cases, so in this, whether another hath put himself into a state of war with him, and whether he should appeal to the Supreme Judge, as Jeptha did.[9]

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress used this and similar expression in various resolutions. In an address to the inhabitants of Great Britain dated April 26, 1775 following the opening of armed hostilities at Lexington and Concord they expressed:

We profess to be his loyal and dutiful subjects, and so hardly dealt with as we have been, are still ready, with our lives and fortunes, to defend his person, family, crown, and dignity, Nevertheless, to the persecution and tyranny of his cruel Ministry we will not tamely submit; appealing to Heaven for the justice of our cause, we determine to die or be free.

We sincerely hope that the great Sovereign of the Universe, who hath so often appeared for the English Nation, will support you in every rational and manly exertion with these Colonies, for saving it from ruin; and that in a constitutional connection with the Mother Country, we shall soon be altogether a free and happy people.[10]

Patrick Henry's Give me liberty, or give me death! speech to the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775 arguing for Virginia to authorize forces to support armed resistance invokes the appeal:

...Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne..

There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free--if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending--if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained--we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us!...Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. The millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us.[11]

Both the Declaration of Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms passed July 6, 1775 and the Declaration of Independence passed July 4, 1776 contain statements expressing an appeal to Heaven.

The Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms expresses:

Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable. -- We gratefully acknowledge, as signal instances of the Divine favour towards us, that his Providence would not permit us to be called into this severe controversy, until we were grown up to our present strength, had been previously exercised in warlike operation, and possessed of the means of defending ourselves. With hearts fortified with these animating reflections, we most solemnly, before God and the world, declare, that, exerting the utmost energy of those powers, which our beneficent Creator hath graciously bestowed upon us, the arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume, we will, in defiance of every hazard, with unabating firmness and perseverence, employ for the preservation of our liberties; being with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live slaves.

...With an humble confidence in the mercies of the supreme and impartial Judge and Ruler of the Universe, we most devoutly implore his divine goodness to protect us happily through this great conflict, to dispose our adversaries to reconciliation on reasonable terms, and thereby to relieve the empire from the calamities of civil war.[12]

The Declaration of Independence expresses:

Man in Colonial American costume with Appeal to Heaven flag.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states...

We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved...[13]

In popular culture[edit]

  • The Pine Tree flag is shown in the opening credits of all seven episodes of the 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams and is shown being carried by colonial forces in "Part I: Join or Die".
  • The Pine Tree flag appears with several other Revolutionary War flags on the desk of Ron Swanson, a character on the NBC comedy Parks and Recreation.

See also[edit]


External links[edit]

Media related to Flags with pines at Wikimedia Commons

Dutch Sheets Tells Story Behind the Appeal to Heaven Flag