The blue cockade was a widespread emblem of states' rights during both the Nullification Crisis of 1832 and the Secession Crisis of 1860. Why was the blue cockade chosen for such a political statement?
Let's head over to London in 1778 to find out.
As we Americans know from our textbooks, Britain was involved in a war with her American colonies at this point. What we often forget is that Britain was also involved in warfare with the French, the Spanish and the Dutch at the same time. Basically, the British army was stretched pretty thin.
Furthermore, things weren't very pretty on the home front either. British citizens were facing a poor economy, due in part to the country's resources being spent on her many wars. Unpopular wars, I might add - many British subjects actually sympathized with the American colonies. Also, lots of people were ticked off at the lack of proper representation in Parliament (remember the American colonists' rallying cry of "No taxation without representation"?). And THEN the government pulled the final punch - they passed the Papist Act of 1778.
Uh, the what?
OK, let's back up a little. One of the chief causes of the embroglios in Europe for centuries was religion - specifically, the Protestant Religion vs the Catholic Religion. It wasn't so much the religious dogmas as it was the issue of power. Which church hierarchy would have the power of being the national religion? England had for years been Protestant, fighting against the power of the Pope in, for example, Spain and France. There had been British anti-Catholic laws on the books for some time although they weren't highly enforced since, um, many of the British troops came from largely Catholic areas like Scotland and Ireland.
But the British government was running low on men and the anti-Catholic laws (such as the one requiring a religious oath to join the army) were a deterrent for some men who would have otherwise joined up. So the pragmatic thing to do was to loosen the anti-Catholic laws, right?
Protestants feared the loosening of anti-Catholic regulations by the Papist Act would bring back Catholic power. Catholics feared that the loosening of the laws would spark a rash of anti-Catholic feeling. Basically, nobody was happy with the Papist Act.
So you've got a government stretched thin by unpopular wars, high tax rates on unrepresented people, and an unpopular governmental deregulation of Catholics: A perfect recipe for a jolly good riot.
Which is exactly what happened in 1780.
Lord George Gordon, the first president of the Protestant Association in 1779, led the party against the Papist Act. By 1780, Lord Gordon had a petition ready for Parliament to consider and a backing of thousands of people who marched on the Houses of Parliament. The badge of this organization?
You guessed it: A blue cockade.
Here's a picture of Lord Gordon haranguing the crowd. Note the blue ribbon in his hat, as well as the hats of the spectators.
And that's where the American blue cockade had its roots. Cool, huh? Here's a Virginia Secession Cockade, from the Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library at the College of William and Mary. Pretty, isn't it?
Gordon's petition to Parliament was defeated 192 to 6. The people of London revolted and a riot broke out. Prisons were broken into and in some cases destroyed, the Bank of England was attacked and the properties of many Catholics and Catholic churches destroyed. It wasn't till the army was called out and about 500 people shot or wounded that the riot was finally quelled. Gordon was later tried for treason and acquitted.
Charles Dickens' 1841 novel Barnaby Rudge is based on the Gordon Riots, if you're interested in reading some historical fiction on the subject. Though not completely accurate, it is an interesting look at the times. For a more in-depth, hour-by-hour detailing of the Gordon Riots, check out this article.
And the blue cockade? Well, it was decidedly frowned upon in London... at least for the time. A quote from the era states,
"It is earnestly requested of all peaceable and well-disposed persons, (as well Protestants associated as others) that they will abstain from wearing blue cockades; as these ensigns are now assumed by a set of miscreants, whose purpose is to burn this city, and plunder its inhabitants; ..."
Eighty years later, the Baton Rouge, LA Daily Advocate, on October 22, 1860 observed:
"South Carolina is Arming.—We are glad to see the people of our State everywhere preparing for the crisis which is at hand. As an offset to the "Wide-Awakes" of the North, "Minute Men" are organizing in all the principal districts of South Carolina. Their object is to form an armed body of men, and to join in with our fellow citizens, now forming in this and our sister States as "Minute Men," whose duty is to arm, equip and drill, and be ready for any emergency that may arise in the present perilous position of the Southern States.
"In Kershaw, Abbeville and Richland Districts the organization is already complete and powerful, embracing the flower of the youth, and led on by the most influential citizens. The badge adopted is a blue rosette, two and a half inches in diameter, with a military button in the centre, to be worn upon the side of the hat. Let the important work go bravely on, and let every son of Carolina prepare to mount the blue cockade."