Isn’t it more than a bit outdated, something best left to the realm of antiquarians and historians? Does it have any place in the modern United States? “I asked the children what the little crowned hearts and diagonal bars, the golden fleur-de-lys, and the rampant lions meant. They studied the enigmatical mixture of lions and animals for some moments, and shook their heads, one young hopeful declaring that all they meant was that the people who had them thought they were better than the people who hadn’t.” (F.S.W., Dame Heraldry, 1886, D. Lothrop and Company, Boston, Massachusetts, pp. 2-3)
There is still a bit of that belief around today, the idea that people who use heraldry are “putting on airs.” And yet, even in the earliest days of our republic, when asked about whether the use of coats of arms had any place here, George Washington replied, “It is far from my design to intimate an opinion, that Heraldry, Coat-Armor, etc. might not be rendered conducive to public and private use with us; or that they can have any tendency unfriendly to the purest spirit of Republicanism. On the contrary, a different conclusion is deducible from the practice of Congress, and the states; all of which have established some kind of Armorial Devices, to authenticate their official instruments.” (Quoted in Crozier’s General Armory, William Armstrong Crozier, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., Baltimore, 1989, p. vi.) Of course, it is possible to argue that Washington had to say that, since he had, and used, a coat of arms which he had inherited from his Washington (and earlier Wessington) ancestors.
Indeed, though, Congress had “established some kind of” armorial device, which can be found today on the reverse of the one dollar bill: the shield on the breast of the eagle is the coat of arms of the United States. (In fact, the dollar bill has two different coats of arms on it. The front of each dollar bill has the coat of arms of the United States Treasury engraved upon it.)
And, too, many of the individual states, as well as many counties and cities have adopted and use coats of arms even today. States from Massachusetts in the northeast, to Maryland in the middle Atlantic, to Alabama in the south; cities as diverse as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Winchester Virginia; all have and use coats of arms as a way of identifying themselves.
“Okay,” you might say, “governments may need some sort of insignia to use as a seal on official documents and so on. But why would any individual want or need to have or use a coat of arms today?”
We might begin to answer this question by looking at what at coat of arms actually is in relation to an individual. It is, effectively, a graphic name tag; what you might think of as the medieval equivalent of a photo ID. A coat of arms states, every bit as much as a signature or business card might, that “I am so-and-so” and, by extension, that “I belong to such-and-such a family”.
Because coats of arms relate specifically to individuals and their immediate family line (and not to everyone who might share the same surname), they can be a unifying factor, helping to create a family identity. As Sanjay Merchant noted on an on-line heraldic discussion forum a while ago, “It dawned on me one day that these ‘family crests’ are powerful familial emblems that I could appropriate.”
But it has been said best, I think, by Canadian Benjamin Thornton who, when talking about his seeking a grant of arms from the Canadian Heraldic Authority, noted: “My interest in heraldry came through my interest in genealogy. Much has already been written about the value of heraldry in creating powerful symbols of family connection, and, well, I wanted some of that – something visual to signify my family roots.”
Heraldry creates “powerful symbols of family connection … something visual to signify [your] family roots.” Who wouldn’t want something like that for their family? A coat of arms can be a lasting symbol of a family, one that can be passed down and used by each succeeding generation. And that visual family connection is something that is as relevant in the 21st Century as it was in the 12th Century.
David B. Appleton