The American Beauty: A New Constellation
by Robert R. Hieronimus, Ph.D.
In 1986-87 I painted a series of watercolors called “The American Beauty”, different perspectives on American flags where the seven red stripes were composed of 16 intertwined red roses. We all know that the red rose stands for love, respect and courage, and these are ideals I would like to reconnect to our flag. Adding the rose to the American flag projects a balance of love, beauty, perfection and achievement to the more overt sensations it radiates of strength, courage and honor.
I chose the number 16 as deliberately as the roses. In numerology, 16 is an expression of happiness, good wishes and hopes. In the mystical I-Ching Chinese Book of Changes, the 16th hexagram is “enthusiasm” which assists one “to install helpers and to set armies marching.” Following numerological procedure, we add the numbers 1+6 to arrive at seven. Seven in the mystical Hebrew kabala is “victory”. For me, 16 also conjures the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, who gave his life to perpetuate the American experiment.
The other artistic license I took was in vibrating the blue surrounding each star. Notice how the stars vibrate in the heavens, signifying cosmic vibrations. I did this to emphasize their cosmic element and the fundamental teaching that all things are vibration.
This “American Beauty” presents a complete picture of the American experience inspiring both patriotism and higher ideals. What follows is an excerpt from a chapter in my book United Symbolism of America about the flag’s mysterious history. Look for the cosmic drama that unfolds when you interpret the American flag using the Kabbala, the I-Ching, and archetypes.
One of the reasons the Founding Fathers did not leave us a lengthy symbolic interpretation of the flag or other symbols they designed was their far greater level of familiarity with heraldry, symbols and art than is commonplace today. Reading symbols and designs would have been as simple as reading in a foreign language for many of them. On June 14, 1777, Congress resolved, in one rather non-descriptive sentence, “That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” Note the lack of official designation for the layout pattern of the stars, and the number of points the stars should have. Traditional historians tell us that the colonists used the colors red, white and blue because not only were they the most available and reliable for flags, but also because these colors were familiar from the British Union Jack. While this explanation does make sense, it does not acknowledge that our founders were also aware of some of the ancient correspondences attached to these colors, numbers and shapes. The following is a symbolic interpretation of the American flag based on my understanding of symbols as used since ancient times in all world cultures, most of which was readily available to the educated gentlemen of 230+ years ago.
The blue field of the flag, called the canton, and the entire flag itself when viewed as a whole, are both rectangular in form. To the ancients, rectangles symbolized temples, probably because most ancient temples were constructed in this shape. The stars within the blue canton represent the stars in the heavens, meaning the temple of our flag is related to the universe. The founders acknowledged this when they called the stars a “new constellation” in the June 14th resolution. The white in the stars is linked to silver and thus to the moon representing the perfected personality, the perfection of the physical body in alignment with the spiritual temple.
The blue in the canton symbolizes wisdom and is related to the heavens, where one looks for wisdom. Blue is also related to the planet Jupiter, standing for justice, knowledge, honor and nobility. Jupiter is the symbols for expansiveness, all-inclusiveness and a breaking down of barriers and limitations. The official explanation for the meanings of the colors in the flag are derived from the writings of Charles Thomson, America’s first Secretary of Congress, when he explained the meanings behind the red, white and blue used in the Great Seal in 1782. Most historians assume the Founding Fathers intended these same meanings to apply to the flag five years earlier, but this has not been documented. According to Thomson, the color blue signified “vigilance, perseverance and justice.” But reading into the symbols a bit deeper, a canton field of blue with white stars within it suggests that our country is designed to be in line with the spiritual elements of the heaven worlds, as above, so below. It depicts a place where the spiritual world and the physical world are in alignment, and therefore a state of perfection.
Thomson’s statement on the Seal tells us the color white “signifies purity and innocence”, but in heraldry, white is also used to symbolize silver, which is linked to the moon, and therefore to the feminine side of the human. White is a combination of all colors of the visible light spectrum or the rainbow. Placing the white stars in a circle reemphasizing unity and equality. Each star depicted in the color white indicates that all the people within each state are also equal to each other. Placing them in a circle means none of the states are above another. We are all one.
Regarding red, Thomson says it is, “hardiness and valour”, but the color red is also symbolically linked to the planet Mars and to blood. Mars basically symbolizes a masculine energy. According to the ancient wisdom teachings it is within the genetic structure of the blood that the energy of the seven bodies is connected from the physical to the divine.
The number 13 was represented in the original flag in both the canton with 13 stars and in the fly (or the horizontal length) with 13 stripes. While the obvious connection is to the first 13 states, a deeper meaning can be gained by looking at the numbers six and seven individually. Six symbolizes beauty, balance, symmetry, harmony of opposites, equilibrium, and reciprocity. Seven symbolizes victory of spirit over matter. It took seven days for God to create the world, and on the seventh day He rested. He was victorious over matter. Seven also is a number related to time and transformations in the changing positions of the sun and the seven planets. It expresses the rhythm of evolution, the week and its days.
Combining the number seven with the color red (Mars, activity, masculine energy, power) and the number six with the color white (moon, purity, feminine energy, intuition) we have another demonstration of symbolic balance as seen on the American flag. Added together, six and seven equal thirteen, which has long been a symbol for regeneration and rebirth. The seven red and six white stripes could be translated thusly: Victory is assured through the balance and harmony of opposites. The American flag symbolizes regeneration or rebirth.
Originally the American flag used stars with six, seven or even eight points, and it is unknown when the five pointed star became more popular. After all, it was not until 1912 that an official arrangement of the stars was proclaimed. A major part of the Betsy Ross legend has her demonstrating how much easier it was for a seamstress to snip a five-pointed star over a six-pointed star, but there is ample documentation that flag design during and after the Revolution varied widely. Very many flags (and probably the original design by artist Francis Hopkinson) used six-pointed stars. In heraldry, stars of the sky would usually be depicted with six, seven or eight points, and a five-pointed star would refer to the stars of planet Earth, or flowers. The five-pointed star in use today has many mystical meanings, including as a sign of intellectual omnipotence and autocracy. Today it is readily associated with the military. It has been called the star of the Magi and the burning star of the Gnostic schools. It is also the symbol of the word made flesh and the small world or the microcosm, or the human being with its head at the top and four appendages below. Christian’s linked it to man’s five physical senses. A five pointed star drawn as one stroke with intersecting lines, the pentagram is thought to have first been deemed sacred by the ancients tracing the path that Venus makes as it traverses the Zodiac.
The number of stars on the American flag has increased as our country expanded. Thus we are evolving with our flag. Studying the number 50 we follow a numerological procedure of adding the two digits 5 + 0 bringing us to a total of 5. Five is also the number of points in the stars and is translated by Paul Foster Case as “the dynamic law proceeding from abstract order… [it is] mediation…, adaptation, means, agency, activity, process, and the like.” The fifty stars can be compared to the Milky Way or our galaxy, symbolizing the path to the deity; it is a connecting link to higher consciousness. In the I Ching, the 50th hexagram is Ting, the Cauldron, representing transformation. The judgment of the cauldron is supreme good fortune and success, and can be likened to the “melting pot” philosophy of this nation.
We may conclude that our galaxy of 50 stars is only one small part of the divine plan, as exemplified by the blue canton being a fraction of the red and white striped fly of the flag. Victory (7) is assured through balance and harmony (6). Wisdom (blue field) is the source from which emanate the 5-pointed stars (word made flesh) reflected in the balance of the red and white stripes. The smaller rectangle (blue field) is a reflection of the larger rectangle (stripes). This is analogous to the body being a physical temple for the soul, which is but another temple for the Deity. Therefore we must go within to gain understanding and wisdom. As above, so below; as within, so without. So much is said with so few symbols. That is truly the glory of symbols, through which we can learn the deeper meaning of America’s flag.
Beyond that one woefully inadequate sentence in the June 14, 1777 resolution, our Founding Fathers did not leave us any other official documentation on their personal interpretations or intentions for the flag’s design. It evolved and changed as the country grew and changed, and popular usage and patriotic legends played as much a part in shaping the final design we all know today as did any government proclamations or design committees. Much of what we all “know” about the history of our flag was not published or conceived until around a hundred years later. In the 1870s, as the nation healed from the Civil War and planned its first Centennial, a new patriotism surged across the nation. It was in these times that the name Betsy Ross was first mentioned and the legend was born.
What can be documented about our flag’s history, is much sketchier, but equally compelling. The “Continental Colors” is considered our first national flag, having been hoisted by General George Washington on January 1, 1776 in defiance of the British Navy in Boston Harbor. (See illustration.) It consisted of the Colonists’ “old flag”, the British Union Jack, being reduced to the canton, and the fly of the flag consisting of the red and white stripes for the 13 united colonies. These red and white stripes were already in use by the Sons of Liberty, an organized secret society of militant instigators. They called it their “union” flag and flew it over the Liberty Tree in Boston and probably over the Boston Tea Party in 1773. By connecting himself with the Sons of Liberty, Washington was sending a clear message of defiance to the British navy off Boston harbor, though some of the British were confused by the presence of the Union Jack. Most Americans clearly understood the 13 stripes to mean all the colonies were “united” behind this fight, (later nicknaming this “The Grand Union Flag”), some of the British were confused by the presence of the Union Jack, and erroneously interpreted it as a sign of capitulation. This confusion is well documented, and it is likely that someone on the new Navy board would have acted soon to adapt the new country’s flag design. Flags were used more prevalently by the Navy in those days, and it would have been deemed imperative to design something quickly for the new country’s ships to be identified across vast distances.
The person who designed the new flag that changed the Grand Union in the canton to the “new constellation” was most likely Francis Hopkinson, America’s unknown, unpaid artist. Francis Hopkinson was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and ratifier of the Constitution. He was a New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress and head of the Marine Committee which directed most Naval matters during the war. He served as treasurer of the Continental Loan Office, judge of the Admiralty Court of Pennsylvania, and judge of U.S. District Court. He was an artist, musician, lawyer, and author. Like the writings of Tom Paine, Hopkinson’s popular songs, poems and pamphlets helped arouse the rebellious nature of the young Americans. Yet today, if you ask any American who designed their flag, most of them will say “Betsy Ross”.
Francis Hopkinson was a “fancier” of seals and emblems and a student of heraldry. He designed the state seal of New Jersey, the seals of the U.S. Navy and the Treasury Department, as well as the Colonial forty- and fifty-dollar bills. He also contributed significantly to the design of the Great Seal of the United States. In 1780 he petitioned Congress to be paid for some of his design work, and in that list he included an item for £9, “the Naval Flag of the United States”. Though this petition was ultimately denied, for reasons like men in public office were expected to donate these kinds of extra services, it was not officially challenged that he was in fact, the designer of the nation’s flag. It was apparently a contemporary belief that Francis Hopkinson’s design was the one referred to in the June 14, 1777 resolution mentioning the “new constellation”.
Not so, said the grandson of Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole a hundred years later (1870) when he addressed the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. William Canby’s memories of his grandmother’s claims were backed up by affidavits signed by Ross’s daughter and niece, as well, both of whom had worked with her in her upholstery business. Though there are quite possibly some nuggets of truth in this colorful story, the part that was immortalized in a painting showing Ross with the flag on her knee and George Washington with other founders in her parlor in 1776, is almost certainly an exaggeration.
Betsy Ross was certainly a flag-maker and a staunch supporter of the war, despite her Quaker upbringing. She also worshipped at the same church as Washington when he was in Philadelphia, and there is no reason to doubt her claim that she did tailoring work for the great man. Nowhere in his copious diaries and letters did Washington ever mention a pivotal meeting in the back room of a seamstress’s house, however, where he and she together knocked out the final design for the new national standard. And as late as 1779, Washington was still corresponding with the War Board about the design for the “Standard of the United States”, something he was unlikely to do had he already approved of the final design back in ’76.
For the past 100 years we have added a “Founding Mother” to our national pantheon. There were others who claimed to have sewn the first flag (Mary Young Pickersgill of Star Spangled Banner flag fame among them), but Ross’s camp benefited by a well-endowed P.R. campaign. Launched by the Betsy Ross Memorial Association in 1909 to save her home as the American Flag House, their painting of Betsy Ross (made from composite portraits of her descendants) meeting with the alleged committee of Congress in her parlor eventually made its way into schoolbooks and impressed itself into our collective unconscious. In addition to it being just the right patriotic (“matriotic”?) story for the time, Betsy Ross also filled the void in our nation’s history of the Mother figure archetype. Like the Pietá, with the Mother Mary holding the body of Christ across her lap, the image of Betsy Ross with our nation’s first flag draped across her lap inspires a sense of motherly care and affection that had been lacking in our national identity since the intervention of the white man. For countless centuries before Columbus, this land had been populated by a tribal culture, a great many of whom operated on a matriarchal basis. Franklin, Jefferson, Paine and many others adopted governing practices from the natives, but unfortunately, their high regard for women and the important role they played in their society was suppressed. This was a mistake we have only recently begun to correct in the outer world. In the inner world, our need for a mother figure asserted itself much faster. This subconscious craving for a Founding Mother explains why Betsy Ross’s legend was accepted so readily. Like one of the Fates, the young twice-widowed woman stitches day and night, an image of nurturing commitment, of being overshadowed or blessed. She gave birth to the form, in this case a flag, from the modest surrounds of her own home, the castle within. She nurtures and protects. She gives hope to every individual, and especially to women, that their contributions are valued. She reminds us that it is the heart and the simple deeds of each one of us that ultimately affirm the human spirit.
Betsy Ross’s story represents the world mother camouflaged in heraldry. That we chose a simple woman who assumed her husband’s business after his death, over an accomplished man in charge of the Continental Navy Board, to be the personage behind our flag is revealing of our unconscious needs. As so often happens with “history”, the greater Meta-need overrules the factual evidence. In perpetuating the Betsy Ross legend, the Meta-need for wholeness, for accepting our female qualities and treating women with equal regard, won out over documentary evidence.
The young men and women of America who determined some truths to be self-evident in regards to rejecting the oppressive tyrannical rule of the monarchy were deliberate in their selection of symbols to illustrate their cause. Especially in those days of low literacy rates, when the great majority of the populace was already attuned to learning through symbols, the planners of the revolution had to be very careful in their selection of the “new country’s” symbols. Because they had extremely pressing physical concerns in the years leading up to and through the actual war, many of these symbols, like the first “Stars and Stripes”, were the result of collective bargaining and modifications by many people over many years. Most of them did not come with any interpretive text, and the legendary myths of their meanings and origins have been added later by enthusiastic patriots with a flair for embellishing a story, and symbol readers like myself. And when it comes to reading symbols, the first and last thing that must be remembered is that every symbol has more than one layer of interpretation.
For more information on the writings of Dr. Robert R. Hieronimus regarding the esoteric meanings of America’s symbols, or his media programs with wife Zohara Meyerhoff Hieronimus, visit www.21stCenturyRadio.com.