Our national flag has quite a history--perhaps not the one we learned about in school, but just as colorful. In truth, it is remarkable how little evidence has survived about the early flags of our nation. The modern spirit of American patriotism did not exist then, and the affection of citizens was primarily for their own colonies. A variety of flags were used for different regiments and companies; anything distinguishable from the British flag served the purpose.
There are a number of possible sources for the flag of 13 alternating stripes and blue union. One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, a judge Francis Hopkinson, designed various seals for the Congress. Toward the end of the Revolution he submitted a bill for his extra services which included nine pounds for supplying a drawing of “the flag of the United States.”
No doubt this was some form of the Stars and Stripes, but Congress resolved “that the report relative to the fancy work of F. Hopkinson ought not to be acted upon.”
The stories about Betsy Ross have no known basis in fact. It is only known that a Betsy Griscom Ross made some ship flags for Pennsylvania. It was not until June 14, 1777, in the midst of routine matters dealing with naval affairs, the Congress resolved “that the flag of the United States be 13 stars white in a blue field representing a new constellation.” Not until over 150 years later, on August 3, 1949, was June 14 officially recognized as Flag Day.
When Vermont and Kentucky were admitted to the Union in 1791 and 1792, an act of Congress increased the number of both stars and stripes from 13 to 15. For the next 23 years this was the national flag, and it was this one that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Key, a young American lawyer, had boarded an enemy ship off Baltimore to seek the release of a friend held prisoner. Detained on board, he watched the British bombard Fort McHenry throughout the night, and when morning dawned he saw the Stars and Stripes still proudly flying over the fort. (This same flag has been repaired by expert needlewomen and is preserved in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.)
It soon became clear that stars and stripes could not be added each time a state was admitted. A member of Congress observed, “You will soon find that the tallest pine in the forests of Maine will not be high enough to serve as a flagstaff.” Hence the return on July 4, 1818, to the original 13 stripes, with 20 stars representing the states admitted at that time.
As states came into the Union, the field of stars grew to 48. They were arranged in many designs before President Taft’s order in 1912 provided for 6 horizontal rows of 8 stars each. With the admission of Alaska to statehood in 1959, President Eisenhower announced a new design of 49 stars in seven staggered rows of 7 stars each. In August of that year Hawaii became a state and in July 1960 the fiftieth star was added. The present design consists of stars in nine rows, five rows with 6 stars, and four rows with 5 stars.
The first Army flag, popularly known as the Betsy Ross flag, had the stars arranged in a circle, based on the idea that no colony should take precedence.
During the American Bicentennial in 1976, a flag known as the Bennington Flag was widely flown in a number of places. It is the oldest Stars and Stripes in existence, the one used at the Battle of Bennington, August 16, 1777, by the Vermont Militia. The Bennington Flag has the same basic design as the national flag, with 13 alternating red and white stripes and blue field, but on the blue field is printed the date “76”. This date is three-fourths encircled by 11 stars, with an additional star in each upper corner. It was the first Stars and Stripes to lead American armed forces on land. The Bennington Flag is not an official flag, yet according to the Flag Research Center in Massachusetts, it may be flown on a public educational institution if in accord with state and local laws.
General George Washington, when the Star-Spangled Banner was first flown by the Continental Army, is said to have described its symbolism as follows: “We take the stars from heaven, the red from our mother country, separating it by white stripes, thus showing that we have separated from her, and the white stripes shall go down to posterity representing liberty.”
Charlie Daniels wrote a song in which he said, “This ain’t no rag; it’s a flag, old glory red white and blue, the stars and stripes… This ain’t no rag; it’s a flag and it stands for the U.S.A.”