Introduction to William Barton’s Observations on Heraldry in America:

A Proposal for a Private Office of Arms

Transcribed and Introduced by John P. DuLong, PhD

From "The Armiger's News," July 2007


This is the second essay William Barton (1754-1817) wrote on the topic of heraldry in America. His first essay was previously transcribed and published in The Armiger’s News.1 Barton is an important figure in American heraldry because he was instrumental in the design of our national great seal.2


In his first essay, “Concise Account of the Origin and Use of Coat Armour…,” written in 1788, he proposed a public government official, the Herald-Marshall, to regulate heraldry in the new republic. Armorial bearings were to be awarded to individuals to recognize their merit and contribution to society. Barton submitted his essay to General George Washington asking him to accept the dedication. Due to the uproar over the recently founded Society of Cincinnati—and the claim that it was a move to establish a noble class based on primogeniture—General Washington declined the dedication. Nevertheless, General Washington still endorsed the inoffensive role heraldry could play in a republic. Out of respect for General Washington’s awkward position caused by the Society of Cincinnati controversy, Barton decided to withdraw the essay from publication.


This second essay, “Observations on the Advantages to be derived from a proper use of Coats-of-Arms, in the United States…,” internal evidence suggests, was written in 1814. It is interesting to contemplate that even after twenty-six years Barton was still very much interested in promoting heraldry in America.


This essay starts out slowly because Barton felt it necessary to ground his proposals in the enlightenment philosophy of his age. However, he quickly moves on to his discussion of the possible role of heraldry in America. In this essay Barton has abandoned a public effort to regulate heraldry and suggests a private initiative. His concern is not only to recognize the armorial bearings of Americans, but to also provide a register of genealogical facts for American families. Barton does not shy away from accepting assumed arms. While condemning the appropriation of surname arms, he values family arms without mentioning the necessity of differencing arms for descendants of original armigers. He views family arms as being able to serve the important function of acting as a marker to distinguish descendants of the same armiger. Ultimately, Barton’s proposal for an office and registry is perhaps too ambitious, but what a wonderful gift to genealogists and heraldists this register would have been had Barton been able to fulfill his plans.


Putting this essay in context, it is important to remember that Barton wrote it during the War of 1812 when there was open hostility towards the British. Apparently, Barton, not wishing to appear as an Anglophile, felt it necessary to add a long insertion of text (his manuscript pages 19-22) reminding his readers that nations may struggle with one another, but once peace is established, animosity diminishes. He wants people to cherish heraldic traditions that many in America associated with the British. Furthermore, Barton, with the sad exclusion of people of color, is inclusive in regarding as valuable the heraldic traditions of Americans of all European origins.


Had Barton been able to achieve either of his proposed initiatives, he would now generally be known as the father of American heraldry. His first proposal was quietly laid aside when General Washington declined to endorse it. Barton’s second proposal apparently was never launched despite the tone of this essay giving the impression that his American Heraldic Institution was open for business. It is hard to understand how he could have contemplated doing all the work he intended for this heraldry project as he was simultaneously proposing to produce an extensive Select American Biography series. This was an ambitious plan to compile and publish the first complete collective biography of prominent Americans.3 This biographical project, like his heraldry project, was cut short by Barton’s death in 1817, well shy of the fourteen years he projected for himself in this essay.


As a member of the American College of Heraldry, it is interesting to contemplate how Barton’s ideas for his proposed Heraldic Establishment parallel the eventual development of the College. He was proposing a one-man operation that he hoped would eventually be carried out by others. It would not be until 1972 that a viable Heraldic Establishment would be created in America to register and publish arms. I would hope that Barton would be proud of the work of the College.


This second essay was very much a rough draft. There were many crossed out and replaced words and phrases. In addition, there were three after thought insertions. In transcribing this document I have tried to be faithful to Barton, but I have, with one exception, removed the stroked out portions, none of them substantial to the intent of his essay, and I have integrated his insertions into the text as he indicated. I have cleaned up some of his citations to Blackstone. Lastly, I have added some explanatory notes, which are between square brackets.


I would like to thank the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, and in particular Valerie-Anne Lutz, Head of Manuscripts Processing, for providing a photocopy of Barton’s essay and granting the American College of Heraldry permission to publish this transcript.4 This manuscript was held by the Barton family and donated to the American Philosophical Society in 1961 probably in part because Barton was a member of this prestigious organization of scholars.


Observations on the Advantages to be derived from a proper use of Coats-of-Arms, in the United States: In which is comprehended a view of the

nature and objects of an Office,

instituted in the city of Philadelphia,

for Heraldic Purposes;

demonstrating the important Benefits,

peculiar to the design of this Institution,

which will result thereupon to the

Citizens of America.



By William Barton, Esq.

Member of the Am. Philos. Soc. Philad.,

the Mass. Hist. Soc. the Am. Antiquar.

Soc., and the Roy. Econ. Soc. Vala Spain.



In order to explain to the American Public the reasons which have induced a private citizen of the United States to institute such an Office as he has now established, in the city of Philadelphia, its founder respectfully submits to the consideration of his countrymen, some observations on the subject. These shall be plain and concise: but they will be sufficient, as he conceives, not only to designate the nature and design of this institution; but to point out the many advantage to be derived, by very respectable numbers of the community, from a undertaking judiciously and faithfully conducted on the principles and plan which he has adopted.


Mankind are distributed over the habitable globe in a vast variety of communities; and the people who inhabit different districts of territory are as various in their character, as the nature of the countries they respectively occupy. These communities of men are indeed, partly by natural causes, and in some measure by artificial means and accidental circumstances, to class themselves into distinct nations, under separate and independent forms of civil government: hence each acquires an appropriate national character. The people of each nation has also its peculiar interests; and by these, as well by their ties of kindred produced by intermarriages, they become closely connected with one another. Yet a people thus united, as a nation, constitute a part, both aggregately and individually, of the universal society of the human race.


There are as Mr. de Vattel,5 the celebrated jurist, observes, many common duties, or offices of humanity, which subsist between nations; although the right which a particular nation has to claim an exercise towards them, on the part of any other of the offices of humanity, does not amount to more than what is denominated by civilians an imperfect right: because one nation cannot compel another to the performance of them. It is therefore impossible that nations should mutually discharge the duties of humanity which they severally owe to others if they do not love6 each other. This affection, which all nations ought reciprocally to cultivate, is the pure source whence the offices of humanity should proceed: they would preserve the character and perfection of it. Then, continues Mr. de Vattel, would nations be seen sincerely and cordially to help each other; to promote the common welfare; and to cultivate Peace, without jealousy or distrust—real friendship would be seen to reign among men; and this happy state would consist in a mutual affection. Every nation, says our author further, is obliged to cultivate the friendship of others; carefully avoiding whatever might kindle enmity. The obligation of a people extends even to the glory of others; and true glory consists in the favourable opinion of men of wisdom and discernment: The obligation here spoken of, should, when occasion offers, stimulate one nation to put another in a condition to acquire true glory; to render them, in this respect, all the justice due to them, and to use all proper endeavors that such justice be universally done to them; and, far from irritating; it should kindly extenuate the bad effect which some slight blemishes might produce.


From the manner in which Vattel has established the obligation of performing the offices of humanity, he infers, that it is evidently founded on the nature of man, solely. The obligation, however, of which these and the like duties of humanity enjoin the performance, is strongly enforced by the precepts and the benign spirit of our religion itself. But, even without taking their superior and corresponding obligation into view, we may exclaim with the learned jurist—How happy would mankind be, were these amiable precepts of nature everywhere obeyed! Yet, a constant experience of the weaknesses and evil propensities too generally prevalent among mankind, forbids us to hope we shall ever see that blessed order of things, which he presently after contemplates, as the result of such dispositions: for, as our author himself observes, the disorderly passions and mistaken interests of men will never allow of its reality.


It is apparent, on taking the first glance of this subject, that a state of warfare is directly repugnant to many of the human principles which ought to subsist between all people. For although, in the prosecution of modern wars, a vindictive spirit is much less prevalent than in former ages, the angry passions of our nature are, nevertheless, necessarily excited thereby, and continue to operate as long as the appeal to arms is maintained. But, fortunately for the happiness of mankind, when actual hostilities cease between contending nations, the mutual dispositions to enmity that had existed during their continuance, naturally subside with them; and the most perfect good will toward each other, not infrequently succeeds to violent animosities.


The cultivation of peace, harmony and benevolence, among the great family of mankind, must always be earnestly desired by reasonable and good men: - everything, consequently, that can in any manner, or in any degree, conduce to this desirable end, is deserving of attention.


When a judicious and liberal exercise of some of the best feelings of humanity can be called forth by artificial means—and the means, too, such as connected with our private and individual interests—we have a double inducement to use their agency. Whatever, therefore, is that object, which, while at once innocent and pleasing in its own nature, may serve to unite large portions of society more intimately in the benevolent dispositions of the heart, by manifesting our widely extended relationship to each other; and to preserve mutual memorials of kindred among those more especially, who are connected by consanguinity and family-alliances; that object should be rendered instrumental to those purposes: it would subserve [sic] the great end of promoting the social affections of mankind. By the means here contemplated, these affections will become more extended as well as more strengthened, among such as are, in the general acceptation of the term, relatives; and these mostly belong to our own country: But in their application they also embrace, as kindred in a remote degree, a much larger portion of that national community which we are members, then is readily imaged.7


The People of the United States of America may be viewed as forming, even at the present period of their national existence, a vast aggregate body, compounded of various materials; and, hence, as being yet somewhat anomalous in its nature; its original constitueal [sic] parts having been considerably incongruous, in their respective characters. Like most of their European ancestors, the American People (under which denomination, consequently, neither the aboriginal inhabitants of this country, nor slaves and other persons of colour, can be comprehended,) trace their origin to different nations of the old world. Thus, whilst the great body of the inhabitants of the United States is composed of the descendants of Britons—including, under this name of the people of both the British Isles—the residue consists, almost entirely, of such as are of German, Belgic, Swedish, French, and Swiss extraction. And in addition to this various population, are many nations of the several countries, from which the ancestor of these people came: but much the greater part of this class of American citizens were born in the British dominions.


When, therefore, the existing population of the American Commonwealth is contemplated in this point of view; and it is at the same time considered, that about two centuries only have elapsed, since England first planted her colonies on the shores of the western continent; it must be evident, that the inhabitants of the United Sates can not have yet become so amalgamated into one uniform and consistent mass, as to constitute a people bearing a peculiar and distinguishable character. Derived from nations diversified, not only by various manners, laws, and forms of government—but to some considerable extent by several languages; divided, likewise, into numerous religious sects, and all these practicing dissimilar modes of worship; the people of this country still retain, in those several divisions of its population which have been noticed, many of the characteristic distinctions of their ancestral countries. Most, if not all, of these marks of discrimination—excepting, probably, such as relate to religious concerns—will be gradually effaced by time. In a few years more—in less, perhaps, than half a century—one uniform language will be spoken throughout this great northern continent—that, too, a language not only the most excellent of all the living tongues; but one which must, in consequence of the present state of the word, become the most universal. Besides, the manners, dispositions, and habits of the people, will more and more approximate to something like a common standard of national character, by means of intermarriages and the ordinary intercourses of civil society; while the genius of a national government will co-operate in finally blending together and assimilating, materials originally discordant, into an homogeneous body.


Since, therefore, those various descriptions of people, who inhabited the extensive territory, on the continent of America, which was possessed by thirteen of the ancient colonies of Great Britain until the middle of the year 1776, declared themselves, at that epocha [sic], a distinct and independent nation, it became thereby incumbent on them and their descendants to render the character of this nation a dignified one; such as should distinguish a generous and enlightened people.


Magnanimous minds will always be influenced by a sense of pride, of a kind as laudable as grateful, in reflecting on the deserts of an honourable ancestry and a meritorious kindred: their virtues are, in fact, ever remembered with complacency The principles on which this disposition is founded, are implanted in our nature; and, if duly cultivated and properly directed, they are productive of very beneficial effects, both as they regard the public and individuals. A nation is often and aptly, compared to a great family, all the members of which are unified to each other by numerous and powerful ties. But the species of relationship produced by these ties, as well as, by those of kindred and alliance between individuals and families, in the same community, does not impair other obligations of an honourable and sentimental nature; which, being mutual between the parties sustaining them, are reciprocated by them: and these are such as the philanthropist—the man of liberal and benevolent mind—will at all times be gratified in fulfilling.


The sort of relationship which men bear to the country of their ancestors is not extinguished by either the removal of themselves or the migration of their forefathers to one under a different dominion. In general the allegiance primarily due by all to the sovereignty of that country in which they were born is transferred by the emigrant to the country in which he finds his residency and establishes (which is termed by civilians) his domicile: this is an obligation which he owes to the government of his adopted country; at least, so long as he remains, in the character of a citizen, within its territory and the jurisdiction of its sovereign authority.


The esteem, nevertheless, which most men continue to feel, wherever their home may be, for the native land of their forefathers, is founded, as already observed, in the principles of human nature. It springs from virtuous and praiseworthy dispositions; and, like charity, humanity, and the love of kindred—virtues which produce the most beneficent conduct—it enlarges the sphere of our benevolence, without diminishing the obligations of other and paramount duties. We are bound by every tie of fidelity and interest to promote the welfare of that country, whose government protects us in the enjoyment of our just rights: yet these obligations, strong as they are, prove by no means incompatible with a liberal regard for the people of kindred-nations. The truest patriot will be actuated by feelings of goodwill towards a people whose kindred blood flows in his veins; and while the virtues of his ancestors will be indelibly impressed on his mind, he will, himself, strive to transmit to his descendants similar examples of public and private worth. On the other hand, little can any man be expected to do, for either the honour or the benefit of posterity, who is regardless of the memory of his forefathers.


Allied, by consanguinity, to some of the greatest and most distinguished nations of the old world, as the people of the United States are, it is a natural consequence of such relationship that our citizens should retain a kind of instinctive attachment to the people of those countries, respectively. We have already been a distinct and independent nation, eight-and-thirty years—yet we find, that a kindly regard for the countries of our respective forefathers appears to be unabated.8 Hence it is, that we observe in many of our principal towns several assemblages of the Sons of St. George—of St. Andrew—of St. Patrick—of St. David—and of Herman; for the purposes of celebrating their relationship to the several nations, which those tutelary characters represent, and of manifesting the benevolent dispositions of the members of these associations, towards such of their kindred countrymen as may stand in need of counsel, assistance, or charity. Nevertheless, we perceive the individuals who constitute these various societies, not only harmonizing with each other; as brethren of the same national family; but performing, with fidelity and zeal, all the duties they owe to the country of their adoption—their common home.


Every emigrant to the territory of the United States, from any other part of the world, may be considered as the Founder of an American family, so soon as he has any progeny that becomes established in this country. There have been, hitherto, scarcely more than seven or eight generations of people of American birth, descended from European ancestors, since the first settlement of British colonists in this continent; and still fewer, progressively, since the colonization of large portions of the territory which is now comprehended within the limits of the United States. Most of the families; therefore, at present in this country—were those descended from the first adventurers whose numbers were comparatively few—can not experience much difficulty in tracing themselves back to their American founders; who are, respectively, the parent stocks of the families which may now be denominated national, and are appropriately American.


The various families, of European origin, now existing in the United States, and which constitute altogether the great body of American citizens, are dispersed over a vast extent of territory. In consequence of the multiplied migrations of many of the descendants of those Europeans, who have from time to time, established themselves on the shores of this northern continent, distant separations of members of the same family have been produced, in numerous instances: so as to form, in every such instance, a new family, apparently, in descendants from a common progenitor—the original American settler. These branches properly considered of the same family—in many cases very far removed from each other in locality—either wholly lose, in process of time, all recollection of their kindred; or, at best, retain only an indistinct and uncertain knowledge of them. In such cases, the mere identity of a family name, appertaining to the descendants of the same stock—especially, if very remotely situated from one another—cannot long serve to distinguish their lineage, from that of other persons bearing the same name, although of different families. Thus, in the lapse of time, all the information we at present possess, or have it in our power now to obtain, respecting our ancestry and relatives, will be gradually effaced from our minds; unless the use of some sort of convenient device, calculated to be retained in families, shall be more generally adopted and carefully maintained, as memorials of family lineage and alliances.


Such devices have been in general use for ages past, and still continue to be employed for those purposes, in all the civilized nations of Europe—as well republics as monarchies—under the denomination of Armorial Bearings or Coats-of-Arms. These have been found very useful, by long and extensive experience, in designating and identifying particular families; discriminating, at the same time, between many persons of a different lineage yet bearing the same or similar names. It is probable, that no means which could be now devised, would more effectually answer the valuable purposes to which family coat-armour has been, during many centuries, almost universally applied, throughout the various countries of Europe: for it serves not only the desirable end of designating our kindred—thus gratifying a natural and laudable curiosity, but it affords, when properly attended to, an useful mean of investigating descents and alliances—thereby aiding, very considerably, in determining the rights of property. The more, therefore, the science of Blazonry shall be cultivated among the citizens of America, the more highly will it be held in estimation by men of well informed and unprejudiced minds; while the benefits deducible from it, will be proportionally experienced. Nor can any possible disadvantages result from a due and regular appropriation of armorial bearings to American families of reputation and worth, in the assumption and use of them by their proper owners: because these heraldic ensigns confer neither privileges nor titles; and are, in themselves, as perfectly inoffensive to the community, as the surnames which denote different families.


It may, perhaps, be objected to what may be deemed a general use of family armorial ensigns, in this country, that a great proportion of the people in the United States are not entitled to bear them, by reason of their forefathers having had no legitimate claim to such appropriate badges of families; and, that, even where a right of that kind actually exists, it must in many cases be extremely difficult, if not altogether impracticable, at the present day, to ascertain the paternal coats-of-arms properly belonging to such American families as are entitled to them. This, it may be presumed, is in some measure the fact, with respect to paternal arms. In reference, however, to some of the more beneficial purposes to which these heraldic badges of different families may be applied, those objections have little weight; indeed they are destitute of any, in a prospective view. For those arms which are called assumptive, when they are once appropriated to a particular family, and do not belong to any other—at least in the same country—will serve to distinguish that family, together with their descendants, from others: And besides, those who claim a right to ancestral arms can, in most instances, ascertain the bearing properly appertaining to their family, by means of some little industry and investigation. Arms recently assumed by a family will not, indeed, enable the original bearers of them to trace back their ancestors; nor will they be generally esteemed equally honourable with the arms of inheritance not being retrospective. But even these assumptive arms, in order that they may be rendered in some degree useful, must not only exhibit on the face of them a peculiar and distinguishing character; but they must also be appropriately used by the several contemporary branches of the same family, and their descendants.


Many persons, unacquainted with heraldry, experience great difficulty in ascertaining their proper family-arms; and very often, no doubt, those who are fairly entitled to hereditary coat-armour are induced to assume any bearing belonging to their name, however mistaken, it may be, because it has been assigned to them by some coach painter, seal cutter, or engraver. By these means, there must be numerous instances in which gentlemen exhibit on their carriages, their seals and their plate, arms, with their crests and mottoes, which appertain to different families, although of the same name. This is, in fact, a very common abuse of an useful object, in this country; and an error into which persons entitled to hereditary coat-armour are too often inadvertently led.


Every man, therefore, who holds a respectable standing in society must be desirous not only of avoiding, in the first instance, mistakes of this nature; but of having them rectified, as speedily and as far as possible, after it shall be discovered that they have been actually committed. Because, independently of the consideration, that no person of reputable character would wish to use, and thereby probably perpetuate in his family, any armorial insignia, which might evidently appear to be the right of another—every abuse of this sort tends to diminish the usefulness of coat-armour, in an important particular:—it thus loses its aptitude to serve as a permanent badge of discrimination between families of different lineage bearing the same name; and it also ceases to be an useful mean of determining the rights of inheritable property, in cases of descent.


Coats-of-Arms are now in pretty general use, in the United States. They are every where seen on coaches and other carriages, as well as on watch seals, plate, etc. They are to be met with also, and not infrequently, on tombs and other funeral monuments, in our churches and cemeteries. Nisbet observes, in like manner, that Coats-of-Arms “are to be met with everywhere; not only on the frontispieces of public and private buildings, but commonly on tombs and other monuments of antiquity; and, especially, are of excellent use on seals, by which we know ancient charters and other evidences of the highest importance, whether they be authentic or not.” (See his celebrated System of Heraldry.)1 The circumstance of their being thus generally used is an evidence of their being thought worthy of attention; for it will not be alleged, that thousands, who exhibit them in the various ways just mentioned, deem them of no importance, when the fair inference from the fact is, that their utility is thereby fully admitted.


The ingenious Nisbet remarks, that in the year 1592, the parliament of Scotland empowered the principal herald of that nation, and his associates in office, to revise the arms of all persons bearing them, within the realm, and to matriculate them in their books or registers; and in the year 1672, the powers granted for those purposes were renewed & ratified, by another act of the Scottish Parliament. It was formerly required in Scotland, by sundry statues, that every freeholder should have his proper seal of arms; an impression of which, in lead, was to be deposited by the owner, in the chief court of the shire. This was the more necessary, as seals only, without signatures, until about the year 1540, served to attest all deeds & charters in that Kingdom. The setting of appropriate family-seals to such instruments, was undoubtedly a good mode of authenticating them; and if this were still done, in addition to the sign manual of the party sealing, it would assist in verifying instruments thus sealed. The regulations in Scotland, just mentioned, render it evident, as Nisbet observes, that the people of that country “never looked on armorial bearings as an idle amusement, but as a matter of great moment and importance to the nation.” In short those persons, here and elsewhere, who view coat-armour as being of no consequence, and yet continue to bear it (if any such there be) should discard it entirely, as a nugatory thing: in so doing, they would act consistently. But, contrary, such as are capable of appreciating its utility when properly applied, are interested in promoting the success of an undertaking, expressly calculated to connect its useful purposes with their proper objects.


To render the use of armorial bearings subservient to valuable purposes in the United State, the writer of these observations has established, in the city of Philadelphia, an Office, denominated[:]


The American Heraldic Institution; or,

Office for recording historical and genealogical

Accounts of American Families;

and for examining, adjusting, registering, and also for

duly certifying, the Armorial Ensigns

to which such Families may be severally entitled.



In this office, Books are opened for registering, on applications for that purpose, genealogical accounts of all such American families as may be desirous of establishing some permanent memorials of their origin, descent, alliances and kindred; and also the armorial ensigns, (usually called coats-of-arms,) severally appertaining to those families; together with the evidences, of what nature so ever, which shall either be furnished by the respective applicants or obtained for them, of their right to such arms.


In addition to the original record of individual families, which shall be inserted in the books of this Office, registers will also be made—whenever required and in cases duly authenticated—of the marriages, births and deaths, occurring in each family previously registered. The place of residence of a family at the time of the being registered, with the profession, occupation or employment, or the official designation of the applicant, shall also be recorded; and any subsequent removal of the family, to a place distant from their former residence, shall, on application, be likewise noticed in the registers.


As the family-arms, crest and mottoes, which shall be recorded, will be properly blazoned in the registries of the families to which they belong, exemplifications of them will be furnished to those who may apply for them: and, in like manner, copies of any of the family-registers will be made out, for persons desirous of possessing them. All copies from the register shall be attested and verified by the Proprietor of the Office, under an appropriate seal.


The fees for searches—for entering, in the first instance, the historical or genealogical account of a family in the books of the office—recording the arms, etc.—making subsequent entries—and for certified copies from the registries—are all rated according to a reasonable standards of compensation for such services.


It is hereby declared, that at the expiration of fourteen years all the manuscripts books and papers which shall belong to this Institution, shall then become the property of the American Public; and that as such they shall be at that period deposited in the Hall of the Philadelphia Library Company, by the original proprietor or his legal representatives; to be there forever kept. In this case, they will be open to inspection; without any other restriction, than that of its not being permitted to take them out of the apartment in which they shall be placed—and of the payment of such reasonable fees for inspection, searches, and copies, as the directors of the said Library Company may at any time require (if they should think proper so to do) by a by-law of that corporation.



It will be apparent on reflection, that an Institution in this country, calculated to carry into operation the useful purposes of heraldry that have been mentioned, would be peculiarly beneficial. European books on the subject of blazonry furnish little that can assist an American enquirer, in searching for the proper arms of his family, and no heraldry work of any description has yet been published in this country. The institution and proprietor of the Heraldic Establishment, in Philadelphia, is very well known by many distinguished characters in the United States to be intimately versed in the various departments of heraldic science. In the course of many years, he has acquired an extensive collection, in print and in manuscript, of materials requisite for the present undertaking. This collection consists, principally, of a vast multitude of the armorial bearings, appertaining to English, Scots and Irish families, and such Americans as are descended from them—besides a large number of those belonging to American families of German, Low Dutch, French, Swedish, and Swiss extraction. No pains or reasonable expenses shall be spared, still further to enlarge this body of heraldic materials, so as to render the purposes to which they are now appropriated as extensively beneficial as possible.


The founder of this institution flatters himself, that the plan upon which he has established it, will enable him to furnish a great variety of new, curious and interesting, as well as useful information, to persons desirous of acquiring it. In his researches and enquiries, relating to those things which are the more immediate objects of the present undertaking, the antiquary will be particularly gratified. But the biographer and the historian will also collect, from the same source, much information, applicable to their several pursuits. The scholar and the man of science will likewise discover, that heraldic studies are far from being devoid of either learning or instruction of an useful nature.


Many valuable institutions of great public utility have been planned and carried into execution by men in private stations. The institution of the present establishment relies on the evident advantages to be derived from it, for the patronage of the Public: his plan, he is confident, will meet with the support of enlightened and liberal men. On this occasion, the favorable sentiments concerning heraldry, coat-armour, etc. entertained by two persons eminently distinguished in the American republic, cannot fail of having that weight to which the opinions of such characters are ever entitled. So early as the year 1782, Charles Thomson, Esq. the Secretary of Congress, addressed a letter to the writer of these observations, in which that venerable patriot thus expressed himself:


“I am much obliged for the perusal of the Elements of Heraldry,10 which I now return. I have just dipt [sic] into it so far as to be satisfied that it may afford a fund of entertainment, and be applied by a state to useful purposes.”


“I enclose you a copy of the Device,11 by which you have displayed your skill in heraldic science, and which meets with general approbation.”


“At the same time I announce to you the receipt of your obliging letter of the 28th of last month, which covered an ingenious Essay on Heraldry;12 I have to acknowledge my obligations for the sentiments your partiality has been indulgent enough to form of me, and my thanks for the terms in which your urbanity has been pleased to express them.


“Imperfectly acquainted with the subject, as I profess myself to be; and persuaded of your skill, as I am; it is far from my design to intimate an opinion, that Heraldry, Coat-Armour, etc. might not be rendered conducive to public and private uses 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:” etc.13 The whole of this interesting letter will be found in the Appendix to the Memoirs of the Life of the Late Dr. Rittenhouse, published a few months since.14


To such opinions as those here cited, in favour of the utility of Coat-Armour, etc. it would be superfluous to add any other authority: they tend strongly to show, that advantages are to be derived from an Institution, calculated to realize the useful objects of Heraldry. Indeed it must be evident, on due consideration of the subject, that, in this country, an Institution designed to carry into effect the more valuable purposes of blazonry and genealogical research, will prove highly useful.


It may be here remarked, that, in England, periodical Visitations of several counties were formerly made by certain officers of the College of Arms, denominated Heralds—“to inquire into the state of families, and to register such marriages and descents, as were verified to them upon oath.”15 Sir William Blackstone observes, also, that “their original visitation-books, compiled when progresses were solemnly and regularly made into every part of the Kingdom, are allowed to be good evidence of pedigrees.”16 But these visitations, like many other beneficial practices of former times, have fallen into disuse. Mr. Warburton, an English herald informs us, that some of the English counties have not been visited since the year 1620; others, not since 1650; and the latest, not since 1680. “In a few years more,” (said this ingenious heraldic writer, seventy-five [sic] years ago,) “if some speedy expedient is not found out to prevent it, time will terminate all proofs to family-arms and pedigrees, and also bury in oblivion the births, marriages, and deaths, of all distinguished families in the Kingdom; and, consequently, there rights of inheritance to their paternal and maternal estates.”17 And the learned commentator [Blackstone], before quoted, expresses an earnest wish—“that this practice of visitation, at certain periods, were revived; for,” says he,18 “the failure of inquisitions post mortem,19 by the abolition of military tenures, combined with the negligence of the heralds in omitting their usual progresses, has rendered the proof of a modern descent, for the recovery of an estate, or a succession to a title of honour, more difficult than that of an ancient.” Judge Blackstone then notices some late regulation that has been adopted, to obviate such difficulties with relation to the peerage: “But,” continues the Judge, “the general inconvenience, affecting more private successions, still continues without a remedy.”


To assist in remedying in this country, such inconveniences as those just noticed, is one object of the Heraldic Institution, in Philadelphia. For, if accounts of families—comprehending notices of their respective descents, intermarriages, issue, kindred, places of residence, professions, occupations, employments, etc. together with their family-arms—should be generally registered, by persons of reputation and property in the United States; the entries made in these cases in the register-books, (to be preserved and perpetuated, and open at all times to inspection and search,) would become valuable documents. They would serve as most useful guides in determining the identity of families descended from a common ancestor, and in ascertaining the various degrees of kindred of those related to them respectively. They would, in most instances, afford to the investigators of particular genealogies that kind of strong presumptive evidence, at least, in relation to the descent, alliances, etc. of each family, which would leave little difficulty or trouble, in obtaining more positive and direct proofs of such matters. The advantages in respect to “rights of inheritance,” and “private successions,”—independently of many others—were, doubtless among the “private uses” contemplated by General Washington, and the “useful purposes” to which Mr. Thomson had reference; and to which, in the concurring opinions of those eminent characters, Heraldry, Coat-Armour, etc. might be rendered conducive.


In the United Sates, the establishment of an Office for the uses and purposes herein designated, can only be an Institution of a private nature; but this circumstance will not diminish its usefulness. The advantages it is calculated to produce, apply to so large a proportion of the community, that the citizens of this Country will be generally interested in perpetuating it. Some competent person, desiring of the confidence of his countrymen, will doubtless be induced to continue the Institution, on the same principles and plan as at present established, when it shall have passed from the hands of its Founder: and thus, by others in succession, it will probably be rendered perpetual.



  1. [William Barton, “Concise Account of the Origin and Use of Coat Armour; with Some Observations on the Beneficial Purposes by which Heraldry May be Applied, in the United States of America,” The Armiger’s News 28, no. 2 (Spring 2006):7-11.]
  2. Richard S. Patterson and Richardson Dougall, The Eagle and the Shield: A History of the Great Seal of the United States (Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1976), passim.]
  3. [Milton Rubincam, “A Memoir of the Life of William Barton, A.M. (1754-1817),” Pennsylvania History 12, no. 3 (July 1945):179-193, see 191-193.]
  4. [The full citation for this manuscript is: William Barton, “Observations on the advantages … in re use of Coats of Arms…,” Misc. Ms. Collection, n. d., presented by Mrs. C. Barton Brewster, 1961, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.]
  5. [Emerich de Vattel (1714-1767), the author of The Laws of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law Applied to the Conduct and to the Affairs of Nations and of Sovereigns: A Work Tending to Display the True Interest of Powers (Northampton, Mass.: Printed by T. M. Pomroy for S. & E. Butler, 1805).]
  6. This is the strong term used by Vattel to denote that benevolent regard which the people of various nations ought to cherish towards one another.
  7. Sir William Blackstone remarks, (Comm. II. 203.) that “it is at the first view astonishing, to consider the number of lineal ancestors which every man has, within no very great number of degrees.” The learned Commentator has given the results of some calculations, concerning the number of ancestors and collateral kindred respectively, which every man has up to the twentieth degree. See Comm. II. 203, 204, 205 & 206. [Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780), the author of Commentaries on the Laws of England, 4 vols., originally published 1765 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979).]
  8. [This statement suggest that this essay was written thirty-eight years after 1776 which would make the year 1814.]
  9. [Alexander Nisbet (1657-1725), A System of Heraldry, Speculative and Practical: With the True Art of Blazon, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Printed for J. Mackeuen, 1722-1742).]
  10. An excellent elementary work under that title; by M. A. Porny, of Eton in England. [M. A. Prony, alias for Marc Antoine Pyron du Martre, a professor of French at Eton College in the eighteenth century, The Elements of Heraldry: To which is Annexed, a Dictionary of the Technical Terms Made Use of in Heraldry (London: J. Newbery, 1765).]
  11. This was a Device for the Arms and Great Seal of the United States; afterwards adopted by Congress, and now established.
  12. In Manuscript—by the writer of these observations. It was inscribed to General Washington, as a token of the author’s exalted respect for his character; but it was not intended for publication.
  13. [For the complete text of the exchange of letters between Barton and General Washington see Lundie W. Barlow, “Some Reasons Why there is no Governmental Granting Authority or Registry of Armorial Achievements in the United States,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 29, no. 3 (Sept. 1961):125-128.]
  14. [Barton’s mother was Esther Rittenhouse, the sister of the famed astronomer David Rittenhouse, hence his interest writing a biography on his uncle. William Barton, Memoirs of the Life of David Rittenhouse, LL.D. F.R.S., Late President of the American Philosophical Society, etc. Interspersed with Various Notices of Many Distinguished Men: With an Appendix, Containing Sundry Philosophical and Other Papers, Most of Which Have Not Hitherto Been Published (Philadelphia: E. Parker, 1813). See Rubincam, “Life of William Barton,” 180, 189-191.]
  15. Bl. Comm. III, 105.
  16. Ibid.
  17. See his London and Middlesex Illustrated—published in 1749. [JohnWarburton (1682-1759), Somerset Herald of Arms in Ordinary, London and Middlesex Illustrated… (London: Printed by C. and J. Ackers, 1749). Barton is incorrect here; this book would have been published sixty-five years ago and not seventy-five, which would of course be after his own death.]
  18. Bl. Comm. III, 105, 106.
  19. The inquisitio post mortum was instituted to enquire, (at the death of any man of fortune,) the value of his estate, the tenure by which it was holden [sic], and who and at what age the heir was. See Bl. Comm. II, 68 & III, 258.

John P. DuLong, Ph.D., is an expert on Acadian, French-Canadian, and Métis genealogical research. He has also been involved in two extensive studies with a team of accomplished French-Canadian researchers to document the royal lineages of Catherine Baillon and of the Le Neuf brothers; nobles who settled in New France. During these projects he renewed his childhood interest in heraldry, in particular French heraldry. Now working on a project with his wife, Patricia A. (McGuinness) DuLong, to trace her Anglo-Irish and Scottish ancestry, he is becoming familiar with the heraldry of the British Isles.