The flag of the United States of America, which is our country’s official symbol, was authorized by Congress on June 14, 1777. As specified by the Second Continental Congress in 1777, “Resolved that the flag of the thirteen United States be Thirteen stripes alternate red and white: that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
The idea of an annual Flag Day is thought to have first originated in 1885, when BJ Cigrand, a Wisconsin schoolteacher, had students observe June 14 as ‘Flag Birthday’. Mr. Cigrand continued to promote the observance of June 14 as ‘Flag Birthday’, or ‘Flag Day’, in magazine and newspaper articles, as well as public addresses, for years.
In 1889, a kindergarten teacher in New York City scheduled activities for the students to celebrate Flag Day. Subsequently, the idea of observing Flag Day was adopted by New York’s State Board of Education.
In 1891, the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia had its first Flag Day celebration.
In 1893, a resolution was adopted by the Pennsylvania Society of Colonial Dames of America that requested the mayor of Philadelphia and all citizens display the Flag on June 14th. The day was subsequently designated ‘Flag Day’, and school children participated in appropriate activities, with each child being given a small flag.
In 1894, the governor of New York directed that the Flag be displayed on all public buildings on June 14.
In Illinois, the American Flag Day Association was organized to promote having a Flag Day celebration. In 1894, the first Flag Day celebration by school children was held in various cities across Illinois on June 14.
In 1916, President Wilson issued a proclamation officially establishing June 14 as Flag Day.
In 1937, Pennsylvania became the first state to celebrate Flag Day as a state holiday. New York also observes Flag Day as a state holiday on the second Sunday in June.
In 1949, National Flag Day was established by Congress. Flag Day is not an official federal holiday. According to Title 36 of the United States Code, the week of June 14 is designated as “National Flag Week.” During this Week, the president issues a proclamation urging citizens to fly the American flag for the week.
Flag Day is an observance holiday, which is a period of time (day, week, or month) designated by Congress for the observance of various events. Federal offices are not closed for an observance holiday.
WHAT DOES THE FLAG OF A COUNTRY REPRESENT?
A flag is used to symbolize a country. Prior to the 18th century, flags were only used by the military, especially the navy.
The American flag is a proud symbol of Americanism, and is recognized in foreign countries. The American flag is displayed throughout the country in many different ways, including decals for car windows, in clothing, and in badges and lapel pins.
In 1995, following several Supreme Court rulings that struck down federal and state statutes prohibiting flag desecration, saying they infringed on the First Amendment rights to free speech and expression, a Constitutional amendment was proposed that would have made it illegal to burn the American flag. The proposed amendment stated:
“The Congress and the states shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States”
Those that supported the amendment felt that special protection should be given to the flag because it symbolizes freedom and unites a diverse country. Those against the amendment felt flag burning is a form of free speech that should be protected.
The proposed amendment was approved in several votes in Congress. To become a Constitutional amendment that is sent to the states for ratification, the Senate had to pass the legislation with a two-thirds majority. The Senate vote was 63-36 in favor of the amendment, but three votes short of the two-thirds majority necessary to send the amendment to the states for ratification. The Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman at the time, Orrin Hatch (R-UT), said, “Isn’t it ridiculous that the American people are denied the right to protect their unique national symbol in the law?”
A flag can also be used as an internationally recognized distress signal. If a flag is flown upside down on a ship at sea, it means the ship is in imminent danger and is requesting immediate assistance.
DESIGN OF THE FLAG —
The first U. S. flag was the Grand Union flag of 1775. It was also known as the Continental Flag, the Continental Colours, the Congress Flag, the Cambridge Flag, and the First Navy Ensign. The design of the flag combined the British King’s Colours and the thirteen stripes signifying Colonial unity.
This flag was also the flag of the United Colonies of North America, until 1777. A flag was necessary so that American civilian and merchant vessels, as well as war ships and military troops could be distinguished from the British they were fighting in the American Revolutionary War.
The Continental Colours was first raised on the American colonists’ warship USS Alfred in Philadelphia on December 3, 1775, by newly-appointed Continental Navy Lieutenant John Paul Jones. The flag was used by the American Continental Army forces as both a navy flag and garrison flag throughout 1776 and into 1777.
George Washington’s Army was believed to have raised the flag on January 1, 1776, at Prospect Hill in Charlestown, near their headquarters at Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the time, the Army had surrounded, and was laying siege to, British forces occupying the city. British military observers in the city interpreted the flag as a sign of surrender. This traditional account has been disputed by some scholars who concluded a British union flag was probably raised at Prospect Hill.
This flag consisted of thirteen alternating red and white stripes, with the British Union Jack in the canton. There is no consensus as to who actually designed and created the flag. The flag raised on the USS Alfred is believed to have been created by Margaret Manny.
The Continental Colours flag is remarkably similar to the British East India Company’s flag. Parts of the East India flag design, which had been used between 1707 and 1801, were nearly identical. The number of stripes varied from nine to 15. The East India Company flag would have been familiar to the American colonists, and it has been theorized that this was the origin of the design of the American flag.
Congress authorized the flag of the United States of America on June 14, 1777, with 13 stars replacing the British Union Jack in the canton. This was the first of three Flag Acts specifying the design of the flag. As specified by the Second Continental Congress, “Resolved that the flag of the thirteen United States be Thirteen stripes alternate red and white: that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
In a report to Congress, the Secretary of the Continental Congress 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 & valour, and Blue, the color of the Chief (the broad band above the stripes) signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice.”
Since the Resolution did not specify an arrangement of the white stars, various designs were made, including a circle of equal stars, a circle with one star in the center, six-pointed stars, and rows of stars. Another design, called the Bennington flag, had the number 76 surmounted by an arch of 13 stars. This flag became known as the “Bicentennial Flag” in 1976.
The Bennington flag is named after the Battle of Bennington, which took place on August 16, 1777, in Walloomsac, New York. The battle was part of the Saratoga campaign. in which the British forces tried to gain control of the strategically important Hudson River Valley. During the battle, the American forces, which included soldiers from the Vermont Republic, decisively defeated the British forces, which included Canadians, Indians, and Loyalists, who were American colonists that remained loyal to the British Crown during the American Revolutionary War. The battle was an important victory for the Americans, because the British forces were significantly reduced in the area, and most of the Indians supporting the British forces abandoned them. The British forces surrendered on October 17, 1777. Legend has it that the Bennington flag was flown during the Battle of Bennington, but historians now believe that never happened.
The first time the United States flag was flown during battle was on August 3, 1777, at Fort Schuyler (Fort Stanwix) during the Siege of Fort Stanwix. Upon receiving news that Congress had adopted an official flag, the soldiers at Fort Schuyler made the flag. They cut their shirts up to make the white stripes; red flannel petticoats from officers’ wives was used for the red stripes; and, material from an officer’s blue cloth coat was used for the blue union. The voucher submitted to Congress to pay the officer for his coat still exists.
A House of Representatives book published in 1977 about the flag stated, “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.”
Some flags have gold fringe on them. The use of fringe is optional, and no Act of Congress or Executive Order prohibits the practice. Fringe is only used on indoor flags, since it would deteriorate rapidly on outdoor flags.
The U. S. Army has been using fringe on flags since 1895, and it is considered an ‘honorable enrichment only’. In 1925, the Attorney General issued an opinion stating, “‘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.'”
In 1794, President Washington signed the second Flag Act that designated the flag would consist of 15 stripes and 15 stars after May 1795. This was done to include the newest states to the Union, Vermont and Kentucky, which increased the original 13 states to a new total of 15 states.
In 1818, President Monroe signed the third and final Flag Act describing the manner in which a star would be added for each new state that joined the Union, and also specified there would be 13 stripes on the flag. According to the Act, after a new state had been admitted into the Union, a star would be added to the flag on the next July 4th.
Prior to 1912, there were no established procedures for star placement on the flag, or proportions of the flag itself.
In June of 1912, President Taft issued an Executive Order establishing proportions of the flag. The Order also provided for arrangement of the stars in six horizontal rows of eight each, a single point of each star to be upward, to accommodate the star for Arizona, the 48th state admitted into the Union on February 14, 1912.
In 1959, President Eisenhower issued an Executive Order arranging the stars in seven rows of seven stars each, staggered horizontally and vertically. This accommodated the star for Alaska, the 49th state admitted into the Union on January 3, 1959.
Also in 1959, President Eisenhower issued an Executive Order arranging the stars in nine rows staggered horizontally and eleven rows of stars staggered vertically. This accommodated the star for Hawaii, the 50th state admitted into the Union on August 21, 1959.
In 1981, the federal government specified the colors to be used when making the flag.
THE BETSY ROSS LEGEND —
Most of us have heard about Betsy Ross being the person that designed and made the first flag of the United States. As the story goes, Mrs. Ross was personally asked by George Washington to make a new American flag in June 1776. Betsy made the flag, but altered the original design by replacing the six-pointed stars with five-pointed stars.
The flag was designed during the American Revolution and features 13 stars to represent the original 13 colonies. The arrangement of the stars in a circle is the distinctive feature of the Betsy Ross flag.
Modern historians and flag researchers believe the Betsy Ross legend is, in fact, a legend, and probably several people made the flag, although it is still called the Betsy Ross flag.
At the time the flag was made in Philadelphia, there were at least 17 flag makers and upholsterers working in Philadelphia. Margaret Manny has been credited with making the Grand Union Flag, the first flag of the United Colonies, but there is no proof she also made the Stars and Stripes. The first American flag could have been sewn by any flag maker in Philadelphia.
Even though the Continental Congress had passed the Flag Resolution on June 14, 1777, as late as 1779, Congress still had not decided what the United States flag should look like. The Resolution did not mention shape or arrangement of the stars on the flag.
In 1777, Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey, and a flag designer, designed the 1777 flag during his appointment as Chairman of the Continental Navy Board’s Middle Department. In addition to claiming he designed the U. S. flag, Hopkinson also claimed he designed a flag for the U. S. Navy. He even submitted a letter and several bills to Congress to be paid for his work. These bills, for naval flags and other items, such as the great seal of the United States, never specifically state a flag of the United States, but his original letter to Congress did, are documented in the Journals of the Continental Congress. His claims for payment were denied, since he was already receiving a salary as a member of Congress. His position of Chairman of the Continental Navy Board’s Middle Department was the equivalent to today’s Secretary of the Navy. A May 10, 1779, letter from the War Board to George Washington documents there was still no design established for a national flag for the Army’s use in battle.
According to the National Museum of American History, the Betsy Ross story became popularized around the time of the Centennial Exposition celebrations in 1876. In 1870, Betsy Ross’s grandson, William J. Canby, submitted a paper to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania claiming his grandmother had “made with her hands the first flag” of the United States. Claiming he first obtained the information from his Aunt Clarissa Sydney (Claypoole) Wilson in 1857, twenty years after Betsy Ross’s death, the grandson dates the event based on George Washington’s journey to Philadelphia, in late spring 1776, a year before Congress passed the Flag Act.
An excerpt from Canby’s paper is as follows:
Sitting sewing in her shop one day with her girls around her, several gentlemen entered. She recognized one of these as the uncle of her deceased husband, Col. GEORGE ROSS, a delegate from Pennsylvania to Congress. She also knew the handsome form and features of the dignified, yet graceful and polite Commander in Chief, who, while he was yet COLONEL WASHINGTON had visited her shop both professionally and socially many times, (a friendship caused by her connection with the Ross family). They announced themselves as a committee of congress, and stated that they had been appointed to prepare a flag, and asked her if she thought she could make one, to which she replied, with her usual modesty and self reliance, that “she did not know but she could try; she had never made one but if the pattern were shown to her she had not doubt of her ability to do it.” The committee were shown into her back parlor, the room back of the shop, and Col. Ross produced a drawing, roughly made, of the proposed flag. It was defective to the clever eye of Mrs Ross and unsymmetrical, and she offered suggestions which Washington and the committee readily approved.
What all these suggestions were we cannot definitely determine, but they were of sufficient importance to involve an alteration and re-drawing of the design, which was then and there done by General George Washington, in pencil, in her back parlor. One of the alterations had reference to the shape of the stars. In the drawing they were made with six points.
Mrs Ross at once said that this was wrong; the stars should be five pointed; they were aware of that, but thought there would be some difficulty in making a five pointed star. “Nothing easier” was her prompt reply and folding a piece of paper in the proper manner, with one clip of her ready scissors she quickly displayed to their astonished vision the five-pointed star; which accordingly took its place in the national standard. General Washington was the active one in making the design, the others having little or nothing to do with it. When it was completed, it was given to William Barrett, painter, to paint. …
The gentleman drew out of a chest an old ship’s color, which he loaned her to show her how the sewing was done, and also the drawing painted by Barrett. Other designs had been prepared by the committee and one or two of them were placed in the hands of other seamstresses to be made. Betsy Ross went diligently to work upon her flag, carefully examining the peculiar stitch in the old ship’s color, which had been given her as a specimen, and recognizing, with the eye of a good mechanic, its important characteristics, strength and elasticity.
The flag was soon finished, and Betsy returned it, the first ‘Star Spangled Banner’ that ever floated upon the breeze, to her employer. It was run up to the peak of one of his ships lying at the wharf, and received the unanimous approval of the committee and of a little group of bystanders looking on, and the same day was carried into the State House and laid before Congress, with a report from the committee.
The next day Col. Ross called upon Betsy, and informed her that her work had been approved and her flag adopted; and he now requested her to turn her whole attention to the manufacture of flags, and gave her an unlimited order for as many as she could make. …
Mrs Ross was now effectively set up in the business of flag and color making for the government; through all her after life, which was a long, useful and eventful one, she “never knew what it was,” to use her own expression, “to want employment,” this business (flag-making for the government) remaining with her and in her family for many years.
Canby’s account is generally regarded as having been neither proven nor disproven. If any evidence existed proving the claim, it has been lost.
According to the traditional account, the original flag was made in June 1776, when a small committee, including George Washington, Robert Morris and relative George Ross, visited Betsy Ross and discussed the need for a new American flag. Betsy accepted the job to manufacture the flag, altering the committee’s design by replacing the six-pointed stars with five-pointed stars.
Historians and flag experts don’t believe Betsy Ross designed or sewed the flag for numerous reasons. No records show that the Continental Congress had a committee to design the national flag in the spring of 1776. In fact, the Flag Resolution of 1777 was the first documented meeting, discussion, or debate by Congress about a national flag. Also, there is no evidence to show that Betsy Ross and George Washington knew each other, or that George Washington was ever in her shop. In published letters and diaries, neither George Washington, Col. Ross, Robert Morris, or any other member of Congress mentioned anything about a national flag in 1776.
Betsy Ross supporters say that George Washington was in Philadelphia in Spring 1776, where he served on a committee with John Ross’ uncle George Read, and Congress approved $50,000 for the acquisition of tents and “sundry articles” for the Continental Army. On May 29, 1777, Betsy Ross was paid a large sum of money from the Pennsylvania State Navy Board for making flags.
In addition, Betsy Ross’s daughter, Rachel Fletcher, gave an affidavit to Betsy Ross’s story. A painting by Ellie Wheeler, circa 1851, shows Betsy Ross sewing the flag. If the painting and date are authentic, the story was known nearly 20 years before Canby’s presentation to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
It’s interesting to note that Betsy Ross never claimed any contribution to the flag design except for the five-pointed star, which was simply easier for her to sew.
DISPLAYING THE FLAG —
Prior to June 14, 1923, there were no federal or state regulations regarding displaying the United States flag. On that date, the National Flag Conference adopted the National Flag Code. The Code provided guidance for displaying the flag based on Army and Navy procedures. The Code was adopted by the more than 60 organizations that attended the National Flag Conference.
In 1942, Congress passed a joint resolution that became Public Law in the United States Code, specifying exact rules for using and displaying the flag. Title 36 of the U.S. Code covers patriotic and national observances, ceremonies, and organizations. Part A designates various national symbols, and describes how to show proper respect for the flag in various situations.
In 1931, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was adopted as the national anthem of the United States, even though it had been written in 1814. When the national anthem is being played and the flag is present, everyone should stand and face the flag with their right hand over their heart. Those in military uniforms salute the flag during the entire playing of the national anthem. If the flag is not displayed during the playing of the national anthem, everyone should still stand and face the music with their right hand over their heart.
In 1942, Congress officially recognized the Pledge of Allegiance by having children recite it in school, even though it had been written in 1892. When saying the Pledge of Allegiance, a person should stand at attention with their right hand over their heart. Those in military uniforms salute the flag during the saying of the Pledge of Allegiance.
In 1987, Congress named “The Stars and Stripes Forever” as the National March of the United States. Composer John Philip Sousa wrote the march on Christmas Day, 1896. It was published the following year.
The following tribute to the flag was written in 1994 by Howard Schnauber:
My Name is Old Glory
I am the flag of the United States of America.
My name is Old Glory.
I fly atop the world’s tallest buildings.
I stand watch in America’s halls of justice.
I fly majestically over great institutes of learning.
I stand guard with the greatest military power in the world.
Look up! And see me!
I stand for peace – honor – truth and justice.
I stand for freedom
I am confident – I am arrogant
I am proud.
When I am flown with my fellow banners
My head is a little higher
My colors a little truer.
I bow to no one.
I am recognized all over the world.
I am worshipped – I am saluted – I am respected
I am revered – I am loved, and I am feared.
I have fought every battle of every war for more than 200 years:
Gettysburg, Shilo, Appomatox, San Juan Hill, the trenches of France,
the Argonne Forest, Anzio, Rome, the beaches of Normandy,
the deserts of Africa, the cane fields of the Philippines, the rice paddies and jungles of Guam, Okinawa, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Guadalcanal
New Britain, Peleliu, and many more islands.
And a score of places long forgotten by all but those who were with me.
I was there.
I led my soldiers – I followed them.
I watched over them.
They loved me.
I was on a small hill in Iwo Jima.
I was dirty, battle-worn and tired, but my soldiers cheered me,
and I was proud.
I have been soiled, burned, torn and trampled on the streets of
countries I have helped set free.
It does not hurt, for I am invincible.
I have been soiled, burned, torn and trampled on the streets of
my country, and when it is by those
with whom I have served in battle – it hurts.
But I shall overcome – for I am strong.
I have slipped the bonds of Earth and stand watch over the
uncharted new frontiers of space
from my vantage point on the moon.
I have been a silent witness to all of America’s finest hours.
But my finest hour comes when I am torn into strips to
be used for bandages for my wounded comrades on the field of battle,
When I fly at half mast to honor my soldiers,
And when I lie in the trembling arms of a grieving
mother at the graveside of her fallen son.
I am proud.
My name is Old Glory.
Dear God – Long may I wave.