John Endecott and the Politics of the First Massachusetts Flag

In 1634, John Endecott and Roger Williams agreed on one thing. The first Massachusetts flag had to be changed.

Endecott, of Salem, was one of the more radical of the early Puritan settlers of Massachusetts. He was reduced in power when John Winthrop arrived from London with a colonial charter.

first massachusetts flagWinthrop became governor and Endecott became a councilor. Part of the flag carried a red St. George’s cross on a white background. But the design offended the Puritan sensibilities of Massachusetts colonists. They felt the red cross had roots in Catholicism. And at the time, King Charles I’s Catholic leanings were under scrutiny.

Under goading from the religious radical Roger Williams, who would soon be banished to Rhode Island, John Endecott had the red cross removed from the flag that flew at Salem. There was no lack of public support for Endecott’s actions. But he was well ahead of his time, a fact that worried the more politically astute members of the colony.

It would be nearly ten years before Civil War broke out in England and citizens there would be gleefully stripping the red cross from public symbols. And so Endecott was called to answer for his actions by the Massachusetts Court of Assistants.

John Winthrop noted the matter in his journal: “At the court of assistante complaint was made by some of the country that the ensign at Salem was defaced viz: one part of the red cross was taken out… Much matter was made of this fearing it would be taken as a an act of rebellion.”

Massachusetts’ leaders were worried that the defacing of the flag would cause trouble in England if the government took offense. They wrote a letter to the colony’s lawyer in London, John Winthrop’s brother-in-law Emanuel Downing. In it they relayed the details of what had happened and noted that the perpetrators would be punished.

Winthrop hoped the letter would quell any anger if the flag defacing became public.

But the letter wasn’t exactly true. When the Court of Assistants met in January of 1635, feeling against the red cross symbol was running high and the court couldn’t agree about what to do.

In May of 1685, a court was appointed to review Endecott’s actions and it censured him. The court didn’t declare that Endecott was wrong in his reasoning – that indeed the cross was a sign of Catholic beliefs and should be removed from the flag. But Endecott had overstepped his authority.

Winthrop noted: “They found his offense to be great, rash and without discretion, taking on more authority than he had.”

But the court magistrates also noted that part of the problem was that Endecott had not consulted the general court in his actions, so that the colony could have considered altering all the flags. The result gave the appearance, they concluded, that others in Massachusetts supported idolotry in contrast to Salem.

Endecott was banned from leadership positions for a year as a censure, a fairly mild slap on the wrist. But as political opinion in England caught up with Endecott, he was elevated through the ranks of government and shortly after the English Civil War broke out, Endecott was made governor of Massachusetts.

Thanks to: How John Endecott Cut the Red Cross from the Flag by Nathan Hawkes

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