To the Printers of the PENNSYLVANIA GAZETTE.
GENTLEMEN, No Explanation of the Devices on the Continental Bills of Credit having yet appeared, I send you the following Account of them, with my Conjectures of their Meaning. CLERICUS.
An emblematical device, when rightly formed, is said to consist of two parts, a body and a mind, neither of which is compleat or intelligible, without the aid of the other. The figure is called the body, the motto the mind. These that I am about to consider appear formed on that rule, and seem to relate to the present struggle between the colonies and the tyrant state, for liberty, property and safety on the one hand, for absolute power and plunder on the other.
On one denomination of the bills there is the figure of a harp, with this motto, MAJORA MINORIBUS CONSONANT; literally, The greater and smaller ones sound together. As the harp is an instrument composed of great and small strings, included in a strong frame, and all so tuned as to agree in concord with each other, I conceive that the frame may be intended to represent our new government by a Continental Congress; and the strings of different lengths and substance, either the several colonies of different weight and force, or the various ranks of people in all of them, who are now united by that government in the most perfect harmony.
On another bill is impressed, a wild boar of the forest rushing on the spear of the hunter; with this motto, AUT MORS, AUT VITA DECORA, which may be translated — Death or liberty. The wild boar is an animal of great strength and courage, armed with long and sharp tusks, which he well knows how to use in his defence. He is inoffensive while suffered to enjoy his freedom, but when roused and wounded by the hunter, often turns and makes him pay dearly for his injustice and temerity.
On another is drawn an eagle on the wing, pouncing upon a crane, who turns upon his back, and receives the eagle on the point of his long bill, which pierces the eagle’s breast; with this motto, EXITUS IN DUBIO EST; — The event is uncertain. The eagle, I suppose, represents Great-Britain, the crane America. This device offers an admonition to each of the contending parties. To the crane, not to depend too much on the success of its endeavours to avoid the contest (by petition, negotiation, &c.) but prepare for using the means of defence God and nature hath given it; and to the eagle, not to presume on its superior strength, since a weaker bird may wound it mortally.
Sunt dubii eventus, incertaque praelia mortis: Vincitur, haud raro, qui prope victor erat.
On another bill we have a thorny bush, which a hand seems attempting to eradicate. The hand appears to bleed, as pricked by the spines. The motto is, SUSTINE VEL ABSTINE; which may be rendered, Bear with me, or let me alone; or thus, Either support or leave me. The bush I suppose to mean America, and the bleeding hand Britain. Would to God that bleeding were stopt, the wounds of that hand healed, and its future operations directed by wisdom and equity; so shall the hawthorn flourish, and form an hedge around it, annoying with her thorns only its invading enemies.
Another had the figure of a beaver gnawing a large tree, with this motto, PERSEVERANDO; By perseverance. I apprehend the great tree may be intended to represent the enormous power Britain has assumed over us, and endeavours to enforce by arms, of taxing us at pleasure, and binding us in all cases whatsoever; or the exorbitant profits she makes by monopolizing our commerce. Then the beaver, which is known to be able, by assiduous and steady working, to fell large trees, may signify America, which, by perseverance in her present measures, will probably reduce that power within proper bounds, and, by establishing the most necessary manufactures among ourselves, abolish the British monopoly.
On another bill we have the plant acanthus, sprouting on all sides under a weight placed upon it, with the motto, DEPRESSA RESURGIT; Tho’ oppressed it rises. The ancients tell us, that the sight of such an accidental circumstance gave the first hint to an architect, in forming the beautiful capital of the Corinthian Column. This, perhaps, was intended to encourage us, by representing, that our present oppressions will not destroy us, but that they may, by increasing our industry, and forcing it into new courses, increase the prosperity of our country, and establish that prosperity on the base of liberty, and the well-proportioned pillar of property, elevated for a pleasing spectacle to all connoisseurs, who can taste and delight in the architecture of human happiness.
The figure of a hand and flail over sheaves of wheat, with the motto, TRIBULATIO DITAT, Threshing improves it (which we find printed on another of the bills) may perhaps be intended to admonish us, that tho’ at present we are under the flail, its blows, how hard soever, will be rather advantageous than hurtful to us: for they will bring forth every grain of genius and merit in arts, manufactures, war and council, that are now concealed in the husk, and then the breath of a breeze will be sufficient to separate from us all the chaff of Toryism. Tribulation too, in our English sense of the word, improves the mind, it makes us humbler, and tends to make us wiser. And threshing, in one of its senses, that of beating, often improves those that are threshed. Many an unwarlike nation have been beaten into heroes by troublesome warlike neighbours; and the continuance of a war, tho’ it lessen the numbers of a people, often increases its strength, by the increased discipline and consequent courage of the number remaining. Thus England, after her civil war, in which her people threshed one another, became more formidable to her neighbours. The public distress too that arises from war, by increasing frugality and industry, often gives habits that remain after the distress is over, and thereby naturally enriches those on whom it has enforced those enriching virtues.
Another of the bills has for its device, a storm descending from a black heavy cloud, with the motto, SERENABIT; It will clear up. This seems designed to encourage the dejected, who may be too sensible of present inconveniences, and fear their continuance. It reminds them, agreeable to the adage, that after a storm comes a calm; or as Horace more elegantly has it —
Informes hyemes reducit, Jupiter: idem summovet.
Non si male nunc, et olim
Sic erit. — Neque semper arcum tendit Apollo.
On another bill there is stamped the representation of a tempestuous sea; a face, with swollen cheeks, wrapt up in a black cloud, appearing to blow violently on the waters, the waves high, and all rolling one way: The motto VI CONCITATAE; which may be rendered, raised by force. From the remotest antiquity, in figurative language, great waters have signified the people, and waves an insurrection. The people of themselves are supposed as naturally inclined to be still, as the waters to remain level and quiet. Their rising here appears not to be from any internal cause, but from an external power, expressed by the head of Aeolus, God of the winds (or Boreas, the North wind, as usually the most violent) acting furiously upon them. The black cloud perhaps designs the British Parliament, and the waves the colonies. Their rolling all in one direction shews, that the very force used against them has produced their unanimity. On the reverse of this bill, we have a smooth sea; the sails of ships on that sea hanging loose shew a perfect calm; the sun shining fully denotes a clear sky. The motto is, CESSANTE VENTO, CONQUIESCEMUS; The wind ceasing, we shall be quiet. Supposing my explanation of the preceding device to be right, this will probably import, that when those violent acts of power, which have roused the colonies, are repealed, they will return to their former tranquility. Britain seems thus charged with being the sole cause of the present civil war, at the same time that the only mode of putting an end to it is thus plainly pointed out to her.
The last is a wreath of laurel on a marble monument, or altar. The motto, SI RECTE FACIES; If you act rightly. This seems intended as an encouragement to a brave and steady conduct in defence of our liberties, as it promises to crown with honour, by the laurel wreath, those who persevere to the end in well-doing; and with a long duration of that honour, expressed by the monument of marble.
A learned friend of mine thinks this device more particularly addressed to the CONGRESS. He says the ancients composed for their heroes a wreath of laurel, oak and olive twigs, interwoven; agreeable to the distich,
E lauro, quercu, atque olea, duce digna corona.
Prudentem, fortem, pacificumque decet.
Of laurel, as that tree was dedicated to Apollo, and understood to signify knowledge and prudence; of oak, as pertaining to Jupiter, and expressing fortitude; of olive, as the tree of Pallas, and as a symbol of peace. The whole to show, that those who are intrusted to conduct the great affairs of mankind should act prudently and firmly, retaining, above all, a pacific disposition. This wreath was first placed on an altar, to admonish the hero who was to be crowned with it, that true glory is founded on and proceeds from piety. My friend therefore thinks, the present device might intend a wreath of that composite kind, though, from the smallness of the work, the engraver could not mark distinctly the differing leaves: And he is rather confirmed in his opinion that this is designed as an admonition to the Congress, when he considers the passage in Horace from whence the motto is taken, ——
Rex eris, aiunt,
Si recte facies.
To which also Ausonius alludes,
Qui recte faciet, non qui dominatur, erit Rex.
Not the King’s Parliament, who act wrong, but the People’s Congress, if it acts right, shall govern America.
The Pennsylvania Gazette, September 20, 1775