We took up his coat of arms, and magnified it every way to this, our glorious national banner.
Well, Benjamin Franklin never actually spoke these words. Instead, it was a line spoken by the character of Franklin in Martin Farquhar Tupper’s play Washington: A Drama in Five Acts. The play appeared in 1876 when the entire nation was ablaze with patriotic zeal. This fervor was occasioned, of course, by the centennial celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Everywhere Americans reflected on their past and eagerly anticipated their future. With an eye to the future, Philadelphia hosted the country’s first World’s Fair. During its six-month run, over 10 million people toured the 200 exhibit halls. They were amazed by the Wallace-Farmer Electric Dynamo that powered a series of arc lights and which inspired Edison to work on the incandescent bulb. They were awed by Mr. Bell’s telephone and by the Remington Typographic Machine. Popular as well were the introductions of Hires Root Beer and Heinz Ketchup. Foreign exhibitors did their part too. The Turkish pavilion provided a large stash of marijuana and offered hookah lessons. The Japanese gave a gift that keeps on giving—kudzu. (Introduced to the landscape at the Japanese pavilion, this non-native invasive plant continues to spread at the rate of 150,000 acres a year and is currently devouring the east coast!) The air itself seemed infused with a heady mixture of the novel, the exotic and the futuristic.
Into this national celebration stepped Martin Tupper with his creative contribution to American history. Tupper was an English author once widely read on both sides of the Atlantic but now largely forgotten. He’d sold close to a million copies of his most popular work, Proverbial Philosophy, in the United States by the time of the centennial. The book was a compendium of his moral and theological musings and as a result he enjoyed some degree of credibility as a “thinker.” With an appreciation of heraldry unique to the British, he drew a link between George Washington’s ancestral crest and our own Stars and Stripes. It wasn’t too much of a stretch. The crest has five-pointed stars and red and white stripes. What’s more, Washington himself made lavish use of his coat of arms. In the play, Franklin suggests that the flag was based on the crest as a means of honoring Washington but without his knowledge. It’s all very plausible but with absolutely no basis in fact. It was, however, a good story and it stuck.
We live in exciting times too. Technology, most noticeably, seems to change our world on a near daily basis. With smart phones we can talk, text and locate ourselves with pinpoint accuracy anywhere on the globe—just for starters. Vast social networks are commonplace and “news” can go viral in an instant. This is where Mr. Tupper’s example offers a cautionary tale. With speed, comes an increased chance of error and misjudgment. Carelessly posted pictures or comments have cost people friends, careers and self-respect. Speed also enables rumor, gossip and angry screeds to become a new reality. Mistakes aren’t always corrected and misinformation can morph into common knowledge. As Tupper illustrates, too often we accept a plausible story at face value and never figure out if it’s true. Perhaps a positive skepticism would be good insurance against being bamboozled. Things aren’t always as they appear to be and if the latest story seems too outrageous to be true, it probably is! We’re racing along the information superhighway at ever higher speeds. Let’s ask a few questions along the way and make sure we’re going in the right direction. —Ebert