To the extent that it is thought of at all, the topic of heraldry—the use of armorial achievements, badges, and coats of arms—probably seems impossibly archaic, effete, and elitist to most modern Americans. And yet, American history is rich in personal, military, and civic heraldry. About one-half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence bore arms of some sort, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and George Washington.
Today, the practice of heraldry is more widespread than ever. The first question that often arises—who has the right to bear arms—remains a controversial one among those acquainted with the subject. It remains a common misconception among Americans that “family crests” (as they are often mistakenly called) are the sole reserve of nobility or gentry, but this has no real historical merit when one looks at European history in general. Only in Great Britain are armorial achievements traditionally associated with gentry or nobility. This was not the case in most of Europe. Of course nobles and gentry bore arms, but it did not follow that all who bore arms were noble or gentry. In many cases, they weren’t.
THE HISTORY OF ASSUMED ARMS
In practice, heraldry was largely unregulated in most of Europe. And with the notable exception of the British Isles, it remains largely unregulated today.
Heraldry began with feudal nobility around the early 12th Century, but it quickly spread down through the classes in medieval societies, first among lords and knights, then trickling down to merchants and tradesmen. In many parts of Europe, even peasants bore arms. (During the reign of Louis XIV, arms were actually imposed on peasants, in order to tax their use.)
It’s important to note that heraldry was born of custom rather than law. For the better part of the Middle Ages, assuming arms and informal inheritance were the only means for a person to acquire arms. These are the arms one finds in the earliest armorial rolls like the Armorial Wijnbergen, in which arms were recorded but not necessarily regulated. In fact, the first known official “grant” of arms appears in the mid-14th Century, issued by the Duke of Bourbon.
Heraldry doesn’t really begin to be regulated in most parts of Europe until the 16th Century, and even then it was often rather lax and inconsistent in practice. Some countries, like Switzerland, never regulated it at all. In contrast, Scotland and England were and remain the most high-handed of all heraldic authorities. But even in strictest Scotland, arms weren’t tightly regulated until around 1672.
In Continental Europe, the self-assumed arms of non-nobles like merchants and tradesmen were often called “burgher arms”, and coexisted for centuries with the arms of nobility. Burgher arms were largely unregulated, and this remains the rule in most parts of Europe. Many of these middle-class arms came to be used in America. For example, the Roosevelt arms (three roses on stems on a white shield) is an example of humble Dutch burgher arms that eventually became one of the most well-known emblems in the American upper class.
The arms of nobles weren’t all that different from those of the middle and lower classes, although they tended to be more elaborate: in most of Europe, supporters and crowns are still reserved only for nobility, and in the U.S. only cities, states, and governmental departments have supporters on their coats of arms.
America has a deep heraldic tradition, and while there are a handful of independent nonprofit associations who record American arms, there is no official institution that governs the use of heraldic arms in the United States. Since the founding of the U.S. there have been several attempts at setting up an American heraldic authority, but all of them have failed for various reasons. Thus in America, new personal arms are assumed, not matriculated or granted, as they are in Britain. In many ways, the conditions of heraldry in the United States resemble that of Twelfth-Century Europe.
American heraldry draws primarily from British heraldry, but since this country is a cultural melting pot, American heraldry also draws from the Continental European tradition of “burgher arms”, in which merchants, tradesmen, or even peasants could and often did assume their own arms. American heraldry is a synthesis of these European traditions, using whatever rules are deemed relevant and befitting a republic.
In America, as was the case in Early Medieval Europe, heraldry as it is practiced takes precedence over heraldry as it is governed. Early Americans, being hard-nosed pragmatists, were not fastidious armigers. They used whatever arms were passed down to them, disregarded the ancient British practice of cadency or marshalling, and asked few questions. Armorial seals were not fawned over as aesthetic objects: they were devices used to authenticate documents and claim ownership of expensive items. If they served their function then that was sufficient, as far as their bearers were concerned. The Gore Roll, the oldest American armorial roll, is full of arms that are of erroneous or dubious provenance. Nevertheless, many of these arms are still used by descendants of earlier bearers. The marks of difference (stars, crescents, etc.) seen in many of these arms were intended to be only temporary marks of difference between siblings. But after being passed down through the generations completely unchanged, they’ve become permanent, historical elements in those arms, which the current bearers wouldn’t dare remove. Thus these traditions, which may have had specious beginnings, can gain an informal legitimacy over time, just as they did in Europe.
Beyond military and civic heraldry, American coats of arms do not represent anything other than the associations, families, or people who bear them. They do not take on the trappings of nobility like supporters, garters, or crowns—and so confer no status, privilege, or title. With this in mind, objecting to the use of heraldry makes as much sense as objecting to the widespread use of surnames. An American coat of arms serves the same function as a person’s name, but in a symbolic form. This may sound pretentious, until you realize that heraldry was born of a time when few people could read.
For some, a coat of arms wouldn’t mean anything to them unless it was passed down from a direct ancestor. This is a perfectly valid, respectable point of view. But for those who wish to participate in their clan’s heraldic practices and establish a new tradition to pass down to their descendants, assuming arms is a far more valid option than buying the cheap, bogus “traditions” sold by online “bucket shops” that sell the same poorly-rendered coat of arms to as many unwitting Joneses and Smiths as they possibly can.
Assumed arms would not enjoy the same prestige as arms granted by the Court of Lord Lyon, but a humbler, simpler form of heraldry seems appropriate for a society that eschews crowns, knighthoods, and titles. In general, an American coat of arms should honor the bearer, the family, ancestors and descendants--but it should not elevate them.