Although the American Flag is colorful, it is more than a decoration. The flag symbolizes two facts about America. The flag has fifty white stars representing the fifty U.S. states. The thirteen red and white stripes represent the thirteen colonies that fought in the American Revolution.
Today, it is well known that the country has fifty states, but if you asked someone in colonial America how many colonies there were, he or she would not have answered thirteen.
Citizens in the traditional thirteen colonies thought of themselves as living in one of many British colonies in the New World. In addition to these thirteen colonies, there were four northern ones. These colonies were Quebec, Newfoundland, Saint John’s Island (today’s Prince Edward Island), and Nova Scotia. Today, the land contained in these four colonies is part of Canada. In colonial times, however, the United States and Canada were not countries yet.
“Colonial and early American newspapers carried news from Halifax and Montreal,” writes historian Jeffers Lennox. “Revolutionary politicians, military figures, and leading intellectuals paid close attention to developments in the northern colonies.”
Of the four northern colonies, Nova Scotia had the most in common with the thirteen American colonies. Three out of four people who lived in Nova Scotia came from the New England colonies. Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, owned land there himself.
Historians are people who study the people, places, and events of the past. One goal of their research is to explain why past events happened like they did. Some historians try to explain the events that happened at the time of the Revolutionary War. One important question they still have is why the American flag has 13 instead of 14 stripes.
If it had so much in common with the thirteen colonies, why didn’t Nova Scotia fight alongside them against the British?
Before There Was Canada
Canada is a country north of the lower 48 U.S. states, or the continuous U.S. Over 35 million people live there. Most of them live in large cities such as Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. Much of Canada, however, is sparsely populated wilderness featuring mountains, forest, wetlands, and tundra.
In the mid 1700s, however, Canada didn’t exist.
“There is no Canada at this point,” points out historian Margaret Conrad. “There is British North America.”
In the early 1700s, France had land in the New World called Canada. This land, however, was French territory. It was not its own country. From 1754-1763 Great Britain and France fought the French and Indian War. The British defeated the French. When they took over the Canadian territory, they renamed it Quebec. Today, Quebec is one of Canada’s ten provinces.
After the war, Britain forced French people to leave the area. Britain wanted to replace them with its own citizens. In order to attract colonists to the north, Britain offered land at low prices to colonists in New England. Most of the colonists who bought land did so in the colony closest to them—Nova Scotia.
The Revolution Begins
In 1773, Britain passed the Tea Act. This law regulated the tea business in the British colonies. Many colonists thought the law was unfair. They thought the British government should not impose economic restrictions and taxes on the colonists without the colonists input in the government, or without representation. One group of colonists were so unhappy that they boarded a British ship and tossed its cargo of tea into Boston Harbor. Today, we know this event as the Boston Tea Party. The tea was valuable, so destroying it in this way was a strong statement.
Citizens in Nova Scotia staged a similar protest. The British kept a large supply of hay in Halifax, Nova Scotia’s capital. This hay was intended to feed the animals owned by British troops stationed in Boston. In 1775, however, protesters in Nova Scotia burned the hay before it could be shipped.
Authorities in Nova Scotia knew that most of their colony’s citizens came from New England. Since Boston—the site of the Tea Party—was in New England, the authorities thought that the hay burning in Halifax was inspired by the Boston Tea Party.
Nova Scotia’s governor Francis Legge wrote that he was worried about his citizens’ “connection with the people of New England.” He felt that under attack by a New England militia, Nova Scotia’s militia would refuse to fight them since they would include so many of their friends and family. “That should such an attempt be made,” Legge worried, “I dread the consequences.”
A Visit to George Washington
In March 1776, a group of citizens from Nova Scotia who were unhappy with British rule visited General George Washington at his headquarters in Massachusetts. They hoped that he would be willing to help them with their cause. Washington listened patiently and sympathized with them. Unfortunately, Washington had other worries. For example, the British fleet was still anchored in Boston Harbor. Where would those ships attack next?
Washington sent the delegates to Philadelphia where the Continental Congress was meeting. Although the Continental Congress sympathized with them, as did General Washington, the Continental Congress had other concerns. It was currently writing the Declaration of Independence.
Washington decided against helping the rebels from Nova Scotia. He was afraid that if he invaded a colony that was not rebelling against the British, his army would be viewed as aggressors. “I apprehend [understand] such an enterprise to be inconsistent with the principles on which the Colonies have proceeded,” Washington wrote.
George Washington biographer Barnet Schecter thinks the general had another reason. Washington’s army had already invaded a British colony that had not rebelled: Quebec. This invasion, however, failed.
Washington had sent his best general, Benedict Arnold, to Quebec. After Washington saw a talented general defeated, he concluded that invading any of the northern colonies was too difficult. “Washington was probably thinking,” Schecter says, “If Arnold and his army couldn’t do it, what chance do these guys have?”
The visitors from Nova Scotia returned home disappointed. They would not receive General Washington’s support after all.
Who Were the Privateers?
Why did a colony with so much in common with the thirteen colonies not rebel against Britain? Many historians blame a group of rebels in the thirteen colonies called privateers.
At the time of the Revolution, Britain’s navy was the world’s best. Since their navy was weaker, the Americans allowed armed private ships to disrupt British shipping. In exchange, these ships and the sailors on board them, both called privateers, were allowed to keep anything they captured from the British fleet. While the privateers were no match against the British navy, they still managed to damage many ships. Much of this occurred off the coast of Nova Scotia.
The privateers were different from Washington’s army. They were more interested in wealth than the Revolution. Privateers attacked ships without determining whether those aboard were loyal to Britain or supported the colonists. Colonial authorities found that they were unable to stop the privateers from attacking innocent citizens. As one witness wrote, “Robbing poor innocent ones has been a great means to cool the affection of many well-wishers to the just proceedings of America!”
The thirteen colonies defeated the British in 1783. After the war, many Americans felt that the northern colonies would be eager to join the Union. Article XI of the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States, stated that “Canada acceding to this confederation, and adjoining in the measures of the united States, shall be admitted into, and entitled to all the advantages of this union.”
None of the northern colonies wanted to join the union, however. After the war, part of the colony of Nova Scotia was renamed New Brunswick. New Brunswick was set aside as a safe place to live for people who remained loyal to the British cause through the war.
Canada eventually became a nation in 1867. Both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were among its four original provinces.
Learn more about how Nova Scotia almost joined the American Revolution at Smithsonian.
Read the text of an actual letter sent by a group of citizens of Nova Scotia to General George Washington in 1776 at the Northern Illinois University University Libraries.
Images and Sources
Halifax, Nova Scotia, drawing: Photo Collection NSARM Places: Halifax
Halifax, Nova Scotia, drawing license: Public domain