Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Bennington Flag
Two hundred thirty-four years ago today, two years into the American War for Independence, the Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution, which in its entirety states “Resolved, That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white: that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

Two years earlier, General George Washington, appointed by Congress shortly after the Lexington and Concord engagements on April 19 and the rebellion’s first official battle at Bunker Hill on June 17, took command of the American forces in Cambridge, Mass., on July 2, 1775. On the following New Year’s Day, he raised an improvised Continental Colors on a liberty pole outside of Boston. This flag, designed to be distinctive at a distance, had the 13 stripes in red and white so familiar to us, but the canton, where our star-spangled field of blue is located today, was a British Union Jack. This flag went by many names, and was the first of its kind to come into general use throughout the colonies.

General George Washington
No recorded history is specific, but speculation has it that over time, the presence of the British Union Jack in the canton became offensive to many Americans, including George Washington. When the design was first flown, the Union Jack represented the colonies’ interest in maintaining allegiance to the British crown, but after the Declaration of Independence was issued, such a symbol no longer held validity. Congress may have been petitioned for an improved design; a year later, the Flag Resolution satisfied this sentiment.

The minimal records of the time indicate that such a flag was probably not originally intended as a national unifying symbol. How could Congress envision the representative weight this flag would eventually carry as an American icon? They were in the middle of a war, for which the chances of a favorable result - national sovereignty - were practically nil.

Even after specifics were established for our National Colors, details about their significance still lacked. There has never been any official Congressional decree describing the symbolism of the pattern and the colors. But unofficial documents record the colors to mean: red for hardiness and valor; white for purity and innocence; blue for vigilance, perseverance, and justice. The colors obviously originate from our British heritage, the Union Jack. The stripes signify the separation of the colonies from Mother England, and with the only telling detail provided in the original Resolution, the white stars on the blue canton represent a new constellation.

Disputes over the veracity of the story of Betsy Ross stitching the first of the Stars and Stripes for General Washington continue today, since no first-hand documents exist to back up the Ross family statements of personal testimony and “tradition.” Many 19th Century historians succumbed to embellishment of true stories in order to engender patriotism, and many of our most popular patriotic legends are not based in the least on fact. (Remember George Washington’s cherry tree?) But again, because no tangible evidence exists to prove or disprove Betsy Ross’s creation of the first Stars and Stripes, both sides of the argument have their proponents.

Because pride as a unified nation had not yet developed, a national flag based on the Flag Resolution of 1777 was never officially supplied to Washington and his armies.  As a result,  few renditions of the Stars and Stripes flew over any of the land battles of the war. Most artistic renditions of major engagements of the war, painted decades afterwards (like Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851), inaccurately depict the presence of the Stars and Stripes, favoring artistic license and national pride over historical accuracy.

John Paul Jones
Most of our flag’s war-time appearances happened while afloat, courtesy of John Paul Jones, a bold young Scots  immigrant in our budding navy. On February 14, 1778, in command of the Ranger, Jones exchanged salutes with French Admiral of the Fleet La Motte Piquet in France’s Quiberon Bay. This French salute to our colors constituted an official recognition by the French of the new American nation.

Jones also carried the Continental Colors into battle on the high seas. On  April 24, 1778, off the Irish coast, he captured the British sloop Drake, and on September 23, 1779, he forced the British Serapis to surrender even as his own ship, Bonhomme Richard, sank under him. American colors soon flew atop the captured British vessel.

Congress’ resolution provided no details specifying standards for the flag’s dimensions or proportions, the size of the canton vs. the size of the field, or for the shape or pattern of the stars. In addition, the Congress’ Board of War argued with Washington through the remainder of the war over an established standard, so nothing official standard appeared until after the war was over. As a result, considerable freedom in the interpretation of the Stars and Stripes was expressed throughout the United States until the Taft Administration in the early 20th Century.

Francis Scott Key sees our flag
The growth of our flag as a national icon really took hold during the War of 1812, when Francis Scott Key penned his poem, having waited anxiously all night to see the results of the British bombardment on Fort McHenry on September 13-14, 1814. In less than a week, “The Star-Spangled Banner” saw print, and performances of the song began within a month. It gained national popularity as an unofficial national anthem at the outbreak of the Civil War, and was officially made the national anthem in 1931.

Proportion, dimension, and star-pattern standards for the flag did not become official until January 24, 1912, when President William Howard Taft signed an executive order, decreeing the 13 stripes of red and white and the phalanx pattern (staggered parallel rows) for the stars. In 1934, an official Flag Code was adopted, which describes proper flag etiquette for display, handling, and disposal.

Despite her variations and interpretations (or perhaps because of them), the Stars and Stripes has retained remarkable freshness and beauty over the past 200+ years. Long may she wave.

1.  “Flag: An American Biography” by Marc Leepson (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2005).

2.  “The Stars and The Stripes: The American Flag as Art and as History from the Birth of the Republic to the Present” by Boleslaw and Marie-Louise D’Otrange Mastai (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973). (If you find our Star-Spangled Banner as beautiful a work of art as I do, you should look for this book, an exquisite album of our American flag's history in art - flags, quilts, paintings, accessories.)

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