What do the Seal of the United States Senate, Cuban Coat of Arms and the flags of New Jersey and Haiti have in common? All incorporate a red cap to symbolize liberty. But why does this little red cap represent liberty to such diverse people?
The Phrygian cap is a soft, red, conical cap, with the top pulled forward, that dates back to classical antiquity. It was worn by the Phrygian people in central Anatolia, a part of Turkey today. During the late Roman Empire, some former slaves wore the Phrygian cap, and it became a symbol of liberty. In 44 B.C. leaders of the plot to assassinate Julius Caesar placed such a cap on pole in the Roman Forum to signify liberation from Caesar’s tyrannical rule, which they claimed had violated the authority of the Senate and betrayed the people’s republic.
Leaders of the American Revolution studied the classics and the history of Greece and Rome. Inspired by classical ideals of democracy and republican government, colonists adopted ancient symbols to represent their own contemporary political views. Liberty poles with red caps, banners and other signs were first erected in various towns after the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765. As tensions between the colonies and the crown escalated, liberty poles were planted throughout the colonies, from upstate New York to Savannah, Georgia, and came to be a public sign of American opposition to Parliament and the King. During the Revolution, British troops would tear them down, only to see them re-erected the next morning.
So popular were these symbols, the 1776 design for the Great Seal of the United States portrayed the goddess of liberty holding a liberty pole with a cap. They also appeared on U.S. coins for almost a hundred years. After the Revolution, liberty poles continued to be used as a form of protest against policies of the new national government, such as during the Whiskey Rebellion. They were adopted by leaders of the French Revolution and by a number of anti-colonial revolutions in Central and South America.
The liberty pole and red cap endure today on flags or coats of arms of such diverse places as Argentina, Arkansas, Bolivia, Columbia, Cuba, El Salvador, Haiti, New Jersey, New York, Nicaragua, North Carolina, and Paraguay. Where else can you find these these symbols of liberty today? Help us add to the list!