Americans Need to Appeal to Heaven

“An appeal to heaven” seems exactly what the American founding notion of law was, a notion that protects Americans against the abuse of their rights in the name of “law.”


May 29, 2024

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The callowness into which American discourse has descended might be evidenced by The New York Times’ alarmist headlines over what flag flies outside Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s house. After an initial brouhaha over whether Old Glory was flown upside down—a sign once universally recognized as distress (which might accurately describe our national situation) but now assigned to be a “code word for insurrection”—the most recent dustup has been over the appearance of the Pine Tree Flag over Alito’s New Jersey beach house. (Is there really somebody so lacking a life as to monitor Justice Alito’s flags?)

The Pine Tree Flag (a green pine tree on a field of white with the motto, “An Appeal to Heaven”) originated in Massachusetts and appears initially to have been used by the Continental “Navy” (i.e., the six schooners to our credit). Some suggest the flag might have been used at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

I’d been planning to write about the “Appeal to Heaven” flag for a while. I’d seen it as a kid in a little booklet of Revolutionary Era flags, but my recent exposure to it was three years ago. I’d decided to spend Veterans Day weekend in Pennsylvania and used one of the days to see what there was to see in Harrisburg, including the Pennsylvania Statehouse.  

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Several legislators had “Appeal to Heaven” flags on their doors, but one had attached an explanation. As that legislator saw it, the flag was a reminder of the founding principles of this nation: that we are “one nation, under God”; that rights come from a Creator, not a legislator; that abridgment of those unalienable rights by men entitles Americans—indeed, all men—to an “appeal to heaven.”  

The very phrase “appeal to heaven” hardly comes from some right-wing sloganeer. Its origin is John Locke, who invokes an “appeal to heaven” to ground his claim that men have a right to resist unjust laws—a principle without which the Declaration of Independence would itself be an “insurrectionist document.” The very phrase “appeal to heaven” hardly comes from some right-wing sloganeer. Its origin is John Locke.Tweet This

Now, not being a partisan of John Locke, I nevertheless do share that insight because it long predates that Englishman. Indeed, as St. Thomas Aquinas makes clear, a “law” that violates human rights is simply organized violence and unjust.  

For various reasons, modern American thought has succumbed to a belief in a positivistic view of law—that is, that law is whatever a legislator says. That is not the Judeo-Christian tradition, which recognizes that man cannot make just anything a “law” simply by getting a majority vote.  

It’s also something Americans recognized, at least not that very long ago. Roughly 80 years ago, the United States was part of the Nuremberg Trials, holding German criminals to account and punishing them for crimes against humanity, even though what they did was allowed, even demanded, by German law.  

Some on the Left engage in their own version of McCarthyite “guilt by association” by claiming “Christian nationalists” have sometimes used the Pine Tree Flag. Two observations: (1) For some of those Leftist folks, “Christian nationalism” means refusing to acquiesce in their caricature of the First Amendment as requiring not freedom of religion but freedom from religion, making those “retrograde Christians” who will not pledge allegiance to a naked public square and pretend that is Constitutionally mandated “extremists.” (2) For some of those genuine extremists who did use that flag, there’s an old axiom governing such questions: abusus non tollit usum.  

To reduce that whole revolutionary tradition to a “banner of insurrection” because of how some people abused it at some moments in history is either intellectual dishonesty and/or partisan chicanery. That banner has far too proud a significance in American history to be reduced to that.

But I have to say, I’m not surprised. I’m not surprised not just because I think various people have it in for Samuel Alito, as author of the decision that consigned Roe v. Wade to its rightful place, alongside Dred Scott v. Sandford, in the trash can of Constitutional error.  

I’m not surprised because the roots of this attack can be found back in 1991. That’s when, during hearings on his nomination to the United States Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas was excoriated by some politicians for his invocation of “natural law.” Then, like now, solicitude of defense for abortion-on-demand-through-birth meant that natural law was redefined as some extremist idea clung to by partisan ideologues like Clarence Thomas…and Thomas Aquinas…and Aristotle. Natural law is, of course, the counterpoint to a positivistic view of law. It was the basis on which Jefferson, appealing to “Nature and Nature’s God” defined the inalienability of rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  

“An appeal to heaven” seems exactly what the American founding notion of law was, a notion that protects Americans against the abuse of their rights in the name of “law.” It is a banner whose vision has been sanctioned by almost 250 years of history that cannot be stripped from it because of a few people who carried it three years ago, some pundits’ historical myopia notwithstanding. Same with the Moultrie Flag (the blue field with “LIBERTY” on it). Same with the Gadsden Flag (yellow field with the snake and “DON’T TREAD ON ME”). Was the U.S. Post Office the haunt of “proto-insurrectionists” when it put the Appeal to Heaven Flag on a 1968 stamp?  

If that makes the banner suspect, so be it. As we will soon see throughout June, other banners promoting ideological agendas will be redefined as symbols of progress. Take a walk through Congressional office buildings and note what banners are outside whose offices—and then ask whether Justice Alito is the ideologue here.


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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