United States Flag
Surprisingly, the origin of the United States national flag, the Stars and Stripes (also known as the Star-Spangled Banner, the Red, White, and Blue, and Old Glory), is somewhat obscure. The flag was officially adopted on June 14, 1777, when the Continental Congress resolved that "the Flag of the United States be 13 stripes alternate red and white, that the Union be 13 stars white in a blue field representing a new constellation." Its immediate predecessor, the Continental Colors, consisted of 13 horizontal red and white stripes that symbolized the 13 colonies represented in the Continental Congress, with the British Union Jack as a canton to indicate that the rebels were demanding the historic rights granted to British citizens. How and why stars were chosen to replace the Union Jack in the new flag is not known. Stars were uncommon in flags in that era, although the Stars and Stripes has since made them popular.
At the time of the national centennial in 1876, Americans liked the popular story about the young seamstress Betsy Ross, who supposedly sewed the first flag for George Washington. However, according to historical records, although she did make flags, there is no evidence that indicates she was involved in making or designing the first Stars and Stripes. Francis Hopkinson a popular patriot, a lawyer, a Congressman from New Jersey, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, poet, artist, and distinguished civil servant was almost certainly the person who designed the first Stars and Stripes.
The principal acts affecting the flag of the United States are the following:
- Flag Resolution of June 14, 1777. The resolution stated: "Resolved: that the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation."
- Act of January 13, 1794. The act provided for 15 stripes and 15 stars after May 1795.
- Act of April 4, 1818. The act provided for 13 stripes and one star for each state. A new star was to be added to the flag on the 4th of July following the admission of each new state.
- Executive Order of President Taft dated June 24, 1912. The order established proportions for the flag and provided for arrangement of the stars in six horizontal rows of eight each with a single point of each star to be upward.
- Executive Order of President Eisenhower dated January 3, 1959. The order provided for the arrangement of the stars in seven rows of seven stars each, staggered horizontally and vertically.
- Executive Order of President Eisenhower dated August 21, 1959. The order provided for the arrangement of the stars in nine rows of stars staggered horizontally and eleven rows of stars staggered vertically.
The Stars and Stripes has been through 27 versions, the most recent on July 4, 1960 when Hawaii was admitted to statehood. The current flag consists of 13 horizontal stripes, 7 red alternating with 6 white, with a blue canton containing 50 five-pointed white stars.
A number of legal battles have been waged over the so-called desecration of the flag. For example, members of the Jehovah's Witness religious sect refuse on principle to salute the flag, and they have been prosecuted for it. Political protesters, such as those opposed to the Vietnam War in the 1960s, have tried to dramatize their cause by burning the flag or otherwise defacing it. In the late 1980s, the issue found its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that a protester who had burned the flag at the 1988 Republican National Convention was merely expressing free speech. The Court later ruled that a congressional law protecting the flag from desecration was unconstitutional. Congress is still debating a constitutional amendment to make it illegal to desecrate the flag.
Meaning of Colors, Stripes, and Stars
Sentimental writers and orators sometimes ascribe meanings to the colors in the flag, but this practice is erroneous, as are statements on this subject attributed to George Washington and other founders of the country. The colors red, white, and blue were clearly derived from British sources; many English flags had red and white stripes. The book Our Flag published in 1989 by the House of Representatives states:
"On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress passed a resolution authorizing a committee to devise a seal for the United States of America. This mission, designed to reflect the Founding Fathers' beliefs, values, and sovereignty of the new Nation, did not become a reality until June 20, 1782. In heraldic devices, such as seals, each element has a specific meaning. Even colors have specific meanings. The colors red, white, and blue did not have meanings for the Stars and Stripes when it was adopted in 1777. However, the colors in the Great Seal did have specific meanings. Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, reporting to Congress on the Seal, stated:
'The colors of the pales (the vertical stripes) are those used in the flag of the United States of America; white signifies purity and innocence, red, hardiness and valor, and blue, the color of the Chief (the broad band above the stripes) signifies vigilance, perseverance, and justice.'"
Each of the fifty white stars indicates a state in the present United States. The thirteen horizontal red and white stripes symbolize the thirteen colonies represented in the Continental Congress in 1777. A book about the flag published in 1977 by the House of Representatives states:
"The star is a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial; the stripe is symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the sun."
The placing of gold fringe on the flag is optional. No act of Congress or executive order prohibits the practice. Gold fringe is generally used as a "honorable enrichment" on ceremonial indoor flags that are used for special services. Fringe is used on indoor flags that are used for special services and is believed to have been first used in a military setting. According to the book So Proudly We Hail, The History of the United States Flag, Smithsonian Institute Press (1981), by Furlong and McCandless:
"The fringe does not appear to be regarded as an integral part of the flag, and its presence cannot be said to constitute an unauthorized addition to the design prescribed by statute. An external fringe is to be distinguished from letters, words, or emblematic designs printed or superimposed upon the body of the flag itself. Under law, such additions might be open to objection as unauthorized; but the same is not necessarily true of the fringe."
1776: January 1 -The Grand Union flag is displayed on Prospect Hill. It has 13 alternate red and white stripes and the British Union Jack in the upper left-hand corner (the canton).
1776: May - Betsy Ross reports that she sewed the first American flag.
1777: June 14 - Continental Congress resolves that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes (alternate red and white) and that the union be thirteen stars (white in a blue field) representing a new constellation. The stars represent the original 13 states of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island).
1787: Captain Robert Gray carries the flag around the world on his sailing vessel (around the tip of South America, to China, and beyond). He discovered the Columbia river and named it after his boat The Columbia. His discovery was the basis of America's claim to the Oregon Territory.
1795: Flag adds 2 stars and stripes for Vermont and Kentucky (total of 15 stars and 15 stripes).
1814: September 14 - Francis Scott Key writes "The Star-Spangled Banner." It officially becomes the national anthem in 1931.
1818: Flag adds 5 stars for Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana, and Mississippi but limits stripes to 13 (total of 20 stars). Act of April 4, 1818 provided for 13 stripes and one star for each state. Each new star to be added to the flag on the 4th of July following the admission of each new state.
1819: Flag adds 1 star for Illinois (total of 21 stars).
1820: Flag adds 2 stars for Alabama and Maine (total of 23 stars). First flag on Pikes Peak.
1822: Flag adds 1 star for Missouri (total of 24 stars).
1836: Flag adds 1 star for Arkansas (total of 25stars).
1837: Flag adds 1 star for Michigan(total of 26 stars).
1845: Flag adds 1 star for Florida (total of 27 stars
1846: Flag adds 1 star for Texas (total of 28 stars).
1847: Flag adds 1 star for Iowa (total of 29 stars).
1848: Flag adds 1 star for Wisconsin (total of 30 stars).
1851: Flag adds 1 star for California (total of 31 stars).
1858: Flag adds 1 star for Minnesota (total of 32 stars).
1859: Flag adds 1 star for Oregon (total of 33 stars).
1861: Flag adds 1 star for Kansas (total of 34 stars). Ffirst Confederate Flag (Stars and Bars) adopted in Montgomery, Alabama
1863: Flag adds 1 star for West Virginia (total of 35 stars).
1865: Flag adds 1 star for Nevada (total of 36 stars).
1867: Flag adds 1 star for Nebraska (total of 37 stars).
1869: First flag on a postage stamp
1877: Flag adds 1 star for Colorado (total of 38 stars).
1890: Flag adds 5 stars for North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, and Idaho (total of 43 stars).
1891: Flag adds 1 star for Wyoming (total of 44 stars).
1892: "Pledge of Allegiance" first published in a magazine called "The Youth's Companion." Authorship was claimed by James B. Upham and Francis Bellamy. In 1939, the United States Flag Association ruled that Bellamy was the author of the original pledge. The words, "under God" were added on June 14, 1954. In pledging allegiance to the flag, stand with the right hand over the heart or at attention. Men remove their headdress. Persons in uniform give the military salute. All pledge together: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
1896: Flag adds 1 star for Utah (total of 45 stars).
1908: Flag adds 1 star for Oklahoma (total of 46 stars).
1909: Robert Peary places the flag his wife sewed atop the North Pole. He left pieces of another flag along the way.
1912: Flag adds 2 stars for New Mexico and Arizona (total of 48 stars). Executive Order of President Taft dated June 24, 1912, established proportions of the flag and provided for arrangement of the stars in six horizontal rows of eight each, a single point of each star to be upward.
1931: Congress officially recognizes "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the national anthem of the United States . Its stirring words were written by Francis Scott Key.
1945: The flag that flew over Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, is flown over the White House on August 14, when the Japanese accepted surrender terms.
1949: August 3 - Truman signs bill requesting the President call for Flag Day (June 14) observance each year by proclamation.
1959: Flag adds 1 star for Alaska (total of 49 stars). Executive Order of President Eisenhower, dated January 3, 1959, provided for the arrangement of the stars in seven rows of seven stars each, staggered horizontally and vertically. Executive Order of President Eisenhower, dated August 21, 1959, provided for the arrangement of the stars in nine rows of stars staggered horizon tally and eleven rows of stars staggered vertically.
1960: Flag adds 1 star for Hawaii(total of 50 stars).
1963: Flag placed on top of Mount Everest by Barry Bishop.
1969: July 20 - The American flag is placed on the moon by Neil Armstrong.
1995: December 12 - The Flag Desecration Constitutional Amendment is narrowly defeated in the Senate. The Amendment to the Constitution would have make burning the flag a punishable crime.
Traditionally, flags have been respected and rules have governed their display. However, during the twentieth century, flag etiquette has received particular attention in the United States where the flag has become a symbol of patriotism. June 14, the anniversary of the flag's adoption, has been celebrated as Flag Day since 1916; it is a legal holiday in Pennsylvania.
In 1942, Congress adopted a Flag Code, subsequently amended, that set forth uniform procedures for displaying the flag in a respectful manner. The code formalized and unified the traditional ways in which we give respect to the flag.