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The facts of heraldry in North America are quite complex and interesting due to the multi-cultural history of the continent. A treatment of this subject is useful to the student and essential to the initiate on the path to journeyman and master. In general, the art, pageantry, and historical significance of heraldry is a mystery. When people do not have the facts, they typically fill in the gaps with readily available information from popular sources that is often either incomplete or inaccurate.

In North America, with the Canadian provinces to the North, the Mexican states to the South, and what would come to be called the United States of America in the middle, the complex amalgamation of British, French, Spanish, and in some instances Dutch and Portuguese jurisprudence worked to form and influence the corpus of heraldic expression. It is because of this influence, even though the United States of America does not regulate private heraldry, that various Americans can indeed, depending upon their ancestry, and in some cases place of birth and residence, petition for grants of coats of arms from Britain, Spain, and other countries. This is not to say that such grants or registrations originating in a foreign Court are preferred to a simple assumption of unregulated arms in America. One should, however, be aware that there is a range of heraldic expression and custom alive and well in America as diverse as America herself.

A common question regarding heraldry in the United States of America is why any American person or institution would want a coat of arms. Some people think that this is contrary to the American notions of equality and inconsistent with American history. These unfortunate misconceptions are common. While the Colonies won independence from the British Crown on the battlefield and formed a Republic, that young Republic did not abandon her history. The territory of the country founded on July 4th, 1776, already had a history of European settlement spanning two hundred years. The government changed, but the heritage remained.

While the new American Constitution declared that Congress would not grant titles of nobility, there was and is no prohibition on Americans having or using such titles. They are just inherently foreign in origin. Similarly, armorial bearings (coats of arms) were not prohibited. George Washington himself had a coat of arms which is seen today as the flag of the District of Columbia. Vestiges from the European feudal system persisted in the Republic. Some State Governors are still formally addressed as "Excellency" to this day, a title also once common to the American President. In fact, John Adams proposed the style of "Highness" for the President, though this was voted down. From the very beginning of the Republic, it is clear that the notion of enlightened equality did not proclude differences. People in America were free to achieve and attain what they wanted, and that included armorial bearings.

Heraldry flourished in the American Colonies, with some using their ancestral arms and some obtaining new grants. Another popular misconception is that the Colonies were inherently non-noble. In truth, some Colonies were set up explicitly according to the feudal system, complete with their own local titled nobility. The notion that all titles of nobility refer exclusively to territories outside of America is patently false. While the feudal system ended with the formation of the Republic, some of the customs, such as heraldry, persisted. Far from defeating the purpose of “leveling the playing field” in the new Republic, heraldry was considered quite acceptable in the young United States. George Washington expressly indicated his approval that all citizens may have, if they wish, some form of device or coat of arms to represent themselves. Unlike Great Britain, this was to be unregulated in the new American Republic. Heraldry also was and is widely used to represent universities, colleges, businesses and corporations, organizations, and, of course, the government itself. The only place in America where heraldry is regulated is in the government. The United States Army perhaps makes the most extensive use of heraldry of any branch of the government.

Over the years, some private organizations have come about in an attempt to regulate heraldry, albeit in an unofficial way. These are essentially private clubs that make up their own rules, often obsessed with the British ways of heraldry. These clubs have also spawned and fostered the many pseudo-experts that exist in the field of heraldry. These private individuals derive enjoyment from critiquing others, often publicly and rudely. Ironically, this comes from the freedom given to heraldry in America and, even more ironically, seeks to undo that very freedom. This arrogance is surely far from the notions of the Founding Fathers.

In America, armorial bearings serve a two-fold purpose just as they do in other countries around the world. First, they serve as identification for a person, a family, or an organization. Second, they honor heritage or, in the case of an organization, its legacy. Heraldry, no matter the national origin, represents a link to one’s past and a tie to one’s origins. Also, in some cases some Americans assume arms or obtain grants from other countries (often at a very, very high price) for reasons of ego. This is no different than the reason some in other countries obtain grants of arms from their respective heraldic authorities. That the beauty of heraldry is used by some persons for egotistical reasons is most unfortunate and contributes to misconceptions in the public mind. Nevertheless, it is a perfectly honorable practice for Americans to obtain foreign arms and one that certainly should be encouraged.

Most in America are not entitled to inherited armorial bearings, but this, too, is no different than in other countries around the world. It is safe to say that most legitimate armorial bearings in America are “new,” that is to say they did not originate in a foreign country. Family arms are only rightly born by certain members of the family, and then only when that is the heraldic custom of the country of origin of the arms, such as in Italy or Germany. In many locations, most notably in Britain and the British Commonwealth, armorial bearings are of one individual. Members of the family who are entitled to use the arms must “difference” them in an approved manner, i.e., make certain specific changes to indicate that they refer to a different individual. Unfortunately there is a common misconception, however, that “family arms” refer to a specific name, and that anyone with that name may legitimately use those arms. There are plenty of shops that sell the notorious “coat of arms of the distinguished Jones family” and the like. This is all well and good for artistic display, but the chances of it being one’s actual coat of arms are fairly slim. Despite these unfortunate misunderstandings and abuses, the freedom of heraldry established by George Washington and the other Founding Fathers has allowed new heraldic traditions to be born in America, creating a legacy that can be passed down through the generations.

An excellent source book of information that is recommended for study is: Zieber, Eugene (1984)., Heraldry in America: A Classic Survey of Coats of Arms and Insignia., Greenwich House. Generally available from Amazon for around USD $20.00




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