Thursday, September 29, 2016

Buff and Blue... And Cockades

Many of the portraits of our founding fathers show them in Continental Army uniforms of buff (tan) and blue. By the end of the Revolutionary War, these were considered the basic uniform colors for the army. George Washington himself was apparently involved in the choice of those colors - and the choice was not arbitrary.

There's a story behind buff and blue - and yes, it involves cockades!


George Washington's adopted son, George Custis, gives us a hint of this story when he described his father's uniform: "His uniform (Blue and Buff, the antient Whig colours of England) was as plain as hands could make it..."

The Polling, by William Hogarth
Whig Colors
By the time of the Revolutionary War, the Whig party in England was firmly identified with the colors of buff and blue. Their archrivals were the Tory party, whose color was simply blue. 

Up until the middle 1700s, the Whig color was buff alone. An old painting by William Hogarth shows a polling place with a flag of each color, representing each party. The voters wear cockades of their party's color in their hats.

By the time of the Revolution though, the Whigs had added blue to the mix. An old book I found states that blue is the color of fidelity. Buff comes from the color of buffalo leather, and the old term "to stand buff" is based on the sturdiness of that leather. 

So the colors of the Whig cockade said they were faithful, true blue and sturdy citizens!

A Whig caricature in buff and blue,
taking aim at a symbol of the crown
Whig Ideals
Now we know the story of the colors, but that still begs the question: Why did our founders choose Whig colors for their uniforms?

American revolutionaries were, of course, British citizens until the United States declared their independence. And so they identified closely with British politics. The two main British parties of the day were Tories and Whigs. 

A quick look at the principles of the Whigs - particularly the "radical Whigs" - shows us why American patriots chose their colors and their ideals. 

Religious liberty - unlike the rest of the western world at the time, radical Whigs actually were in favor of allowing dissenters from the state religion. Though they were anti-Catholic, their opposition was rooted in the fact that the Catholic church of the day was political and absolutely quashed all religious dissent. 

Constitutionalism - at a time when nearly all nations believed in the divine right of kings to dictate however they wished, radical Whigs instead said that kings must be confined to constitutional limits.

Representation in government - radical Whigs espoused the new idea of Parliament having supremacy over the king. The representatives of the people, they said, should have more power than a single monarch.

A British election celebration in 1755.
Note the buff and blue cockades.
There is much more Whig philosophy that our founders believed, but this gives you a quick taste. Whigs liked the writings of John Locke, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Algernon Sidney, and Baron Montesquieu. They brought up new theories about things like social contract, natural rights, separation of powers, republic vs monarchy, free trade, religious liberty and the protection of property. 

Those are the ideals on which the American Revolution - indeed, the whole American story - were based.

So it makes sense that our national uniforms would be based on the Whig cockades!

If you want to read in more depth about Whig influence on American thought, here's a good article to start with.

So the next time you see a portrait of an American founder in buff and blue, you'll know what those colors represented!

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