Friday, March 28, 2014

Toward a Theory of American Heraldry

Readers of this blog will know that I am a strong proponent of heraldry, having proposed heraldic arms for the City of Charlottesville (see left) and Albemarle County, to complement or replace the current seals of questionable aesthetic merit.  But does heraldry have a place in America at all?  Are not heraldic arms associated with monarchy and therefore fundamentally at odds with the American republic?

First, the legal question: Can an American assume arms?  In many countries, such as Britain, arms are legally protected.  They may only be used by a grant deriving its authority from the sovereign.  In other countries, such as South Africa, the governing authority registers arms, but, provided they conform to certain standards, cannot reject an application because it does not grant the arms; everyone in South Africa has a legal right to bear them.  In the United States, no heraldic authority of either flavor exists (the claims of various online organizations notwithstanding).  Thus, the only legal limits on arms are those on any logo: you cannot use for commercial purposes a design that someone else has registered.  You can use your own design without registering it, provided you are not concerned about someone else stealing your design and have no intention of taking legal action against them for doing so.

Second, the historical angle: Do American have a tradition of using arms?  Here the answer is clear: yes.  While American heraldry is less standardized than that of Britain or other countries with heraldic authorities, it is widely used.  George Washington's arms are fairly well known (see left), having been adopted for a variety of uses such as the flag of the District of Columbia and the Purple Heart medal.  Thomas Jefferson, one of the more anti-traditional of America's Founding Fathers also bore arms.  John and John Quincy Adams utilized heraldic arms, as did most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.  But, you ask, is there still a vibrant tradition of heraldry, or was it only a brief carry-over from the colonial period?  One could likely write a dissertation on such a question, though it seems to me the US military provides a strong answer in the affirmative.  Heraldry may not be used in every aspect of everyday life, but for certain purposes we certainly retain it.  (I highly encourage the perusing of the US Institute of Heraldry's website if you have any interest in military heraldry.)

Third, the ideological angle.  Just because Americans have used heraldry does not mean they should?  Is is truly consonant with America's republican constitution?  Here I think we have to step back from Britain and its heraldic world, much though I love it.  When one does so, one discovers that in much of Europe heraldry had little to do with the sovereign.  In Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, burgher arms were assumed by various members of what we would call the middle class: merchants, artisans, clergy, and the like.  Similar practices can be found in Scandinavia, were farmer have also traditionally borne arms.  Thus, heraldry has no fundamental connection to a monarchy and why should it?  Heraldry is simply a method of visual representation of individuals or organizations.  That non-noble heraldry has a long tradition in the German-speaking world is no minor point for the United States; German-Americans constitute the largest single ancestry group in the country and the Declaration was translated into German even before it was passed.

Thus, there is no reason that any American, so inclined, should not assume arms.

But what are the proper sources for such arms?  In one sense, the same answers given elsewhere apply in the US: symbols associated with one's place of origin or residence, profession or interests, or visual puns (canting).  I might add that one should draw on such associations as one deems appropriate.  If you care deeply about genealogy, use the traditional heraldic colors of your country of origin.  But if you couldn't care less about your umpteen greats grandfather, find something else to depict.

But there is a more tricky matter: how does one indicate familial connections?  British heraldry, and most other systems, has methods for handing down arms from parents to children (usually fathers to sons).  But in America, status is - in republican principle, at least - held by virtue of one's innate human nature and one's role as a citizen, not by birth.  So should, for example, a son use his father's arms, differenced with the appropriate mark of cadency?  Certainly, if one wanted to strongly stress a familial connection, one could do so, though I would certainly not want to require it.  Moreover, I think it runs contrary to our republican spirit - not to mention basic creativity - to forgo modifying inherited arms.  Nevertheless, experience shows that we all owe a great deal to our parents, for both good and ill, so if they bear arms, one would do well to incorporate elements from those arms into one's own.

A related matter concerns marshalling, that is, the combining of arms.  Typically a married couple will place their arms side by side (no objections here) and their eldest son will quarter his parents' arms.  I have two objections with quartering.  First, it tends to become very cluttered very quickly, rarely working beyond a single generation, and often not even then.  Aesthetically it is often a failure.  (See, for example, the unnecessarily cluttered arms of Mary and Philip, above left, or William and Mary, right.)  And what is the point of heraldry if it is not clearly identifiable?  Second, quartering again presumes the inheritance of arms.  I think it far more interesting and American for each individual to design his or her own.

Some final considerations:  While Americans are not bound by the laws of other countries, they would do well to respect them.  Thus, I would strongly discourage any American from copying outright arms which are registered not only here, but also abroad.  This is bad taste and runs contrary to the fundamental heraldic notion of unique identification.  Moreover, I would encourage Americans to avoid those symbols which are typically reserved elsewhere (e.g. the use of royal crowns) and use cautiously those elements of heraldry - such as supporters and standards - which are sometimes associated with special privileges.  Perhaps the most common error in this regard concerns the heraldry of Scottish clans.  Americans often assume that, having a certain surname, they belong to the corresponding clan and therefore have a right to use its arms.  Not so.  Under Scottish law, arms belong to the chief of a clan; members of the clan, that is, the chief's supporters, use a crest badge.  So don't go plagiarizing any Scottish chiefs.  It's rude.

While I cannot make promises on the timing, several more posts regarding heraldry are in the pipes, and I hope to expound on these ideas further in the context of some examples.
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