June 16, 2009
My friend Dick Libby is a stickler for historical accuracy. While visiting Annapolis famed Hammond-Harwood house, the retired Episcopal priest spied a painting of Marylands Old State House as it looked in 1783, when the U.S. Congress was meeting in the city. The flag that was then flying from the Capitol dome was a huge affair, 9 feet by 23 feetand it didnt look like the replica that has been on display under the dome for years. The John Shaw flagas it has been called for more than two hundred yearswas named for the Annapolis resident who was a skilled cabinetmaker and officer in the states proud militia. But the painting showed the blue band that bears the 13 stars of this early American flag running the full length of the flags hoist. The replica on display in the Capitol puts those stars on a dark blue cantoncloser to the arrangement of Old Glory we know and love today.
Dicks discovery led him to champion a restoration of the John Shaw flag to its original design. And that newly reproduced flaga truly stunning American beautywas dedicated on Sunday, Flag Day, in the Old State House. Marylands magnificent state capitol is the oldest still in continuous use.
Why care? What difference does all this make? The John Shaw flagId prefer to call it the Shaw-Libby flagwas the one that flew over one of the most remarkable scenes in the history of the world. General George Washington came to Annapolis to resign his commission to Congress. He told a reception of Annapolis dignitaries: I owe it to that Supreme being who guides the hearts of all; who has so signally interposed his aid in every Stage of the Contest and who has graciously been pleased to bestow on me the greatest of earthly rewards: the approbation and affections of a free people. Washington was not shy about saying that God had given the Americans the victory in our War of Independence.
For George Washington voluntarily to give up power, to hand back his military commission to the civil authority that had given it to him, was nearly a miracle. At that time, men of learning and experience feared the examples of Caesar and Cromwell.
They had used their popularity with the army to seize all power for themselves. King George III was amazed when he was told Washington was going to resign. If he does that, he truly will be the greatest man on earth.
But that is exactly what His Excellency General Washington did. He readily recognized a higher power, the power of God. And he was not alone. Thomas Mifflin, the president of Congress, replied to Washingtons brief address in words that James Madison would later say bore the shining traces of their draftsman, Thomas Jefferson:
We join with you in commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, beseeching Him to dispose the hearts and minds of its citizens to improve the opportunity afforded them of becoming a happy and respectable nation. And for You [General Washington], we address to Him our warmest prayers, that a life so beloved, may be fostered with all His carethat your days may be happy as they have been illustrious, and that He will finally give you that reward which this world cannot give.
We learn a lot about the world view of the Founding Fathers from this scene. All acknowledged a loving, protecting God, a God of justice and mercy, and One who is actively involved in the lives of men and nations. All acknowledged a final reward which only God can give.
Today, we seem so skittish about mentioning Him in public. The little flag dedication ceremony last Sunday in the Old State House included a moment of silence, but no prayer. One wonders if the ACLU had been in that building in 1783 if they would have rushed in yelling to General Washington and Congress President Mifflin to cease and desist. Thank God they were not there. Those who were there in 1783, however, were so moved by the scene that numerous accounts record the whole company was in tears.
General Washington mounted up soon after that December 23rd ceremony. He politely declined all invitations to public dinners and danceshe loved dancing with the beautiful ladies and they loved dancing with him. He had to hurry on his way. He wanted to be home at Mount Vernon--for Christmas.