Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The New York State Flag: Designed by Revolutionaries

Romantic revolutionaries ...
The flag of the state of New York is based upon its first state seal and an official state coat of arms. Though the design dates to 1777, there have been five versions.
The first seal of New York featured the sun behind mountains.

The first official state seal was designed by three men, including John Jay, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers and the first Chief Justice of the United States; and Gouverneur Morris who is credited as being the "pen" behind the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, specifically the language, "We the people..." While Morris was a revolutionary, other family members such as his mother and sisters remained Tories.

Governor George Clinton and Chancellor Livingston designed the second seal in 1778 which incorporated an official state coat of arms.
The NY coat of arms: romantic and revolutionary

This coat of arms is an idealized version of New York rendered in soft blues, greens and purples. It features a mountain with a sun shining behind it, imagery found in the original seal of 1777. In front of the mountain is the mighty Hudson River with two ships sailing. In general, the coat of arms depicts an image of prosperity as well as peace.

Underneath the coat of arms is a banner and the Latin phrase Excelsior which translates to "ever upward" or "onward and upward." Above the coat of arms is a globe and an eagle with wings outspread.

A Phrygian or Liberty cap (libertycap.org)
The figure of Liberty is on the left of the coat of arms, and the figure of Justice is on the right. Justice, of course, is blindfolded and holds a sword in one hand and the scales of justice in the other. At Liberty's feet is a crown representing both the split with England and the belief that man has a right to self-rule.  In Liberty's hand is a Phrygian or "Liberty" cap. Traditionally, a Liberty cap is depicted in red although that may have become the tradition during the French Revolution which also made use of this ancient symbol that dates to Greco-Roman times. 

The final seal was designed in 1898 and like the first Great Seal of New York, it was designed by a triumvirate. One of these designers was Alonzo B. Cornell, the eldest of the four sons of Ezra Cornell, founder of Cornell University and co-founder of Western Union.

In his own right, Alonzo Cornell contributed to New York in the field of politics. Cornell was a political appointee of President Ulysses S. Grant. He was president of the NY state Republican party, a member of the NY State Assembly, and the first new member of the state assembly to be elected as its Speaker. From 1880-1882, Cornell was governor. (Succeeding Cornell as governor, by the way, was an up and coming politician named Grover Cleveland.)

His history is interesting not only for his personal accomplishments or even those of his father but because he is a member of a privileged social set that, in addition to enjoying socio-economic benefits, also grew up with the belief that one should give back and contribute to society, to community, to the greater good.
NY's flag, designed by revolutionaries with a classical sense of symbolism
New York is the 11th of the original 13 colonies to become a state. It was granted statehood July 26, 1788.   

The New York state flag, straightforward and simple, is a flag born out of revolution and created by revolutionaries.

Excelsior as poetry ...
Longfellow, the voice of a nation (Photo: poets.org)
One charming story about the New York state motto is that the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow saw the state seal in a newspaper and was taken by the motto "Excelsior". The full story is that this inspired Longfellow's poem Excelsior, a staple of by-gone classrooms (wikipedia.org). 

Excelsior is about a boy in a foreign land carrying a flag with the legend "Excelsior" on it.  He is urged to stay and rest but he continues on, despite the warnings.  He is found the next day still clutching the flag "with its strange device." Beside him is an ever-faithful St. Bernard.

The full text of Longfellow's poem, Excelsior (1841) can be found in The Yale Book of American Verse, ed. Thomas Lounsbury (online source is courtesy of www.bartleby.com):

The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, 'mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,

His brow was sad; his eye beneath,
Flashed like a falchion from its sheath,
And like a silver clarion rung
The accents of that unknown tongue,

In happy homes he saw the light
Of household fires gleam warm and bright;
Above, the spectral glaciers shone,
And from his lips escaped a groan,

"Try not the Pass!" the old man said;

"Dark lowers the tempest overhead,
The roaring torrent is deep and wide!"
And loud that clarion voice replied,

"O stay," the maiden said, "and rest
Thy weary head upon this breast!"
A tear stood in his bright blue eye,
But still he answered, with a sigh,

"Beware the pine tree's withered branch!
Beware the awful avalanche!"
This was the peasant's last Good-night,
A voice replied, far up the height,

At break of day, as heavenward
The pious monks of Saint Bernard
Uttered the oft-repeated prayer,
A voice cried through the startled air,

A traveller, by the faithful hound,
Half-buried in the snow was found,
Still grasping in his hand of ice
That banner with the strange device,

There in the twilight cold and gray,
Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay,
And from the sky, serene and far,
A voice fell, like a falling star,

Let It Fly!
To find find out how to fly the flag and other flag etiquette, see USFlagstore's  Flag Etiquette 101 and USFlagstore's How to Fly the Flag at Half-Staff.


  1. What a thoroughly unmemorable flag. Terrible design too - it manages to be cluttered with detail (all of it pretty generic) and still look just like over half of the other state flags. And it has text on it. I guess the person who thought that was a good idea never tried to read writing on a piece of cloth blowing around in the wind 100 yards away.

    1. "I guess the person who thought that was a good idea never tried to read writing on a piece of cloth blowing around in the wind 100 yards away."

      It says one word: "EXCELSIOR" how difficult is THAT to read??? it doesn't have a two paragraph poem on it, it has one word.

  2. ". I guess the person who thought that was a good idea never tried to read writing on a piece of cloth blowing around in the wind 100 yards away."

    People who live in the state don't need to read the words on their flag- they know them by heart, or should!

  3. I really, REALLY like the NY State design- the romanticized 1778 version is stunningly beautiful and interesting, the female figures were extremely well done with draped robes. Some states, like mine have really lousy designs, but Idaho, NY, NJ, michigan and others like those I really like.