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The now-controversial flag flown at Justice Alito’s beach house? It’s rooted in Massachusetts.

In an image provided to The New York Times, an "Appeal to Heaven" flag was seen outside the Alitos' New Jersey vacation home last summer.HANDOUT/NYT

Long before it became embroiled in the latest controversy involving a US Supreme Court justice, the “Appeal to Heaven” flag was known for its deep New England roots; versions of the flag are still associated with the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown and the state of Maine. To this day, it remains the official naval and maritime flag of Massachusetts.

Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that Justice Samuel Alito flew the “Appeal to Heaven” flag, officially known as the Pine Tree Flag, at his beach house in New Jersey last year. Previously the Times had reported that Alito’s home in suburban Virginia had flown an upside-down American flag, an official sign of distress and a banner carried by Jan. 6 rioters at the Capitol. (Alito said his wife hung the flag to troll neighbors as a part of a charged political dispute.)


The Pine Tree flag also was among the flags carried during the Jan. 6 attack.

The Pine Tree flag has come to represent a call for Christian revolution, said Brad Onishi, the author of “Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism – And What Comes Next.”

“Supporters really see the flag as symbolic that we have run out of human options and ways to appeal with our normal ways of challenging, like a voting booth or the courts,” Onishi said. The flag “signals an appeal to God to restore the United States to what they think it should be and includes a call for Christians to participate in a spiritual battle.”

People carried an "Appeal To Heaven" flag as they gathered at Independence Mall to support President Donald Trump during a visit to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia in 2020. Michael Perez/Associated Press

Historically, however, some version of a pine tree on a white background was used on New England merchant ships during the American Colonial era. The symbol then made sense. The Eastern White Pine, found all over New England, was sought after by the British for ship building. This was particularly true in New Hampshire, where sales of white pine to the British navy buoyed the economy.


It was such a valuable commodity that New Hampshire’s Colonial state government passed a law making it illegal for Colonists to take down an Eastern White Pine for their own purposes, such as building a house, even if the tree was on their own land. When the British governor of New Hampshire began enforcing this law, it led to the Pine Tree Riot, a precursor to the Boston Tea Party, which occurred a year later.

So when George Washington asked his personal secretary to draw up a flag for six naval ships during the American Revolution, the Pine Tree Flag emerged. It included not only a pine tree, but also the phrase “Appeal to Heaven,” taken from British philosopher John Locke, who wrote that since there were no international laws at the time, “The people have no other remedy in this, as in all other cases where they have no judge on earth, but to appeal to heaven.”

By 1776, it became the official flag for the Massachusetts navy.

Peter Drummey, chief historian and librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society, said that back then, the words “appeal to heaven” on the flag were viewed as “you look to God as your authority for rebellion.” He acknowledged that today it’s being repurposed in “a pretty charged way.”

In 1971, the “appeal to heaven” part was dropped by the Massachusetts Legislature.


The Massachusetts secretary of state’s office confirmed the amended version without the phrase is still the ensign of Massachusetts maritime ships. That said, it’s unclear exactly where the flag is flown. For example, it isn’t flown on campus or on any vessels at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay, according to a spokesperson.

A pine tree made its way to other flags, including one flown during the pivotal Battle of Bunker Hill in Charlestown in 1775. It was also on Maine’s first ever flag adorned with a blue star. In November, voters in Maine, the Pine Tree State, will vote in a referendum whether to replace it with the first simple pine tree version. The flag, first flown in 1901, had a resurgence of popularity during the state’s bicentennial celebrations in 2019.

The appearance of the flag at the Jan. 6 attack, in particular, created its recent popularity among a certain group, but it began to be used in a new political context in 2013 when William “Dutch” Sheets, a conservative South Carolina minister, began posting about it on social media.

Leslie Hahner, a Baylor University professor who researches symbols as communication tools, has tracked the use of the Pine Tree Flag and notes that symbols and flags are being repurposed more often in the digital age. Hahner noted the Proud Boys, a white nationalist group, began using the flag as a symbol the nation was in distress.


“The advent of the internet and social media has accelerated the process of re-signification,” said Hahner. “We see this over the Pine Tree Flag where it starts online and then on Jan. 6 it becomes associated with being pro-Trump now along with Christian nationalism.”

Jackie Kucinich of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.