When the American Revolution broke out in 1775, the colonists didn’t yet unite under a single flag. Instead, they fought mainly under unit or regimental flags, according to Marc Leepson, author of the book “Flag: An American Biography.”
One flag of the time featured a picture of a coiled rattlesnake with the slogan “Don’t Tread on Me,” while another showed a pine tree with the words “An Appeal to Heaven.”
“There really wasn’t anything that was stars and stripes, red, white and blue,” said Mike Buss, a flag expert with the American Legion veterans’ organization.
In June 1775, the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, created a united colonial fighting force known as the Continental Army. Some historians claim that George Washington, the army’s commander-in-chief, ordered that a flag called the Continental Colors be raised the following New Year’s Day during a siege of British-occupied Boston.
But David Martucci, past president of the North American Vexillological Association (the world’s largest group dedicated to the study of flags), believes Washington likely raised a British Union Jack instead. The Continental Colors, which contained 13 alternating red and white stripes with a Union Jack in the upper left-hand corner, was only used by the navy and perhaps at forts, according to Martucci.
“It was sort of a compromise between the radicals who wanted to see a separate nation and the people who were more conciliatory and wanted to see some accommodation with the crown,” he said.
Either way, Washington realized soon after that it probably wasn’t a good idea to fly a flag resembling that of the enemy, Leepson said.
The Second Continental Congress was busy drafting a constitution known as the Articles of Confederation, seeking an alliance with France and supplying the war effort. But on June 14, 1777, it took time from its schedule to pass a resolution stating that “the flag of the United States be 13 stripes, alternate red and white” and that “the union be 13 stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
To this day, no one knows who designed the flag or why that particular color combination and pattern were chosen. Although legend holds that Betsy Ross made the first American flag in 1776 after being asked to do so by Washington, primary sources backing up that assertion are scarce.
Elizabeth “Betsy” Ross is famous for making the first American flag. But is the account of her contribution to the American Revolution simply a legend? Did Betsy Ross really make the first American flag? The well-known story that Ross sewed the country’s first flag at the behest of George Washington may be apocryphal (a story or statement of doubtful authenticity, although widely circulated as being true).
Although she purportedly sewed the first flag in 1776, Ross wasn’t credited with this work during her lifetime. In fact, her story was first publicly relayed to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania nearly a century later, in 1870, by her grandson, William Canby.
According to Canby, Ross had often recounted a visit she had received in late May or early June of 1776 from three men: General George Washington, financier of the Revolutionary War Robert Morris and Colonel George Ross, a relative. During this meeting, she was allegedly presented with a sketch of a flag that featured 13 red and white stripes and 13 six-pointed stars, and was asked if she could create a flag to match the proposed design. Ross agreed, but suggested a couple of changes, including arranging the stars in a circle and reducing the points on each star to five instead of six.
Canby’s claim (which was supported by affidavits from Ross’s daughter, niece and granddaughter) was published in “Harper’s New Monthly Magazine” in 1873 and soon became part of the United States history curriculum taught to millions of elementary-aged school children every year.
No official documentation has been found to confirm that Betsy Ross was responsible for creating the very first flag, but it is conceivable that Colonel George Ross (a signer of the Declaration of Independence and her deceased husband’s uncle) recommended her for the job. Betsy may also have been acquainted with both Washington and Morris, who were reported to have worshiped at the same church she attended. It has also been established that Ross did indeed make flags, as evidenced by a receipt for the sum of more than 14 pounds paid to her on May 29, 1777, by the Pennsylvania State Navy Board for making “ships colors.”
Some historians attribute the design of the first flag to Francis Hopkinson, a New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence, who also played a role in designing seals for various departments within the United States government. In 1780, Hopkinson sought payment from the Board of Admiralty for his design of the “flag of the United States of America.” However, his petition for payment was denied on the grounds that “he was not the only one consulted” on the design.
In 1870 the Betsy Ross legend took off when her grandson held a press conference touting her possible role in sewing the first flag, and the earliest flag protection laws appeared not long after.
It was almost unheard of for individuals to fly the U.S. flag until the Civil War broke out in 1861, at which time the Stars and Stripes suddenly became a popular symbol in the North, according to Leepson.
“This is the beginning of what some people call the cult of the flag, the almost religious feeling that many Americans have for the red, white and blue,” he said.
Meanwhile, in 1885, Wisconsin teacher Bernard Cigrand originated the idea for a national flag day. In 1912, President William Howard Taft signed an executive order that, for the first time, clarified what the flag should look like. Up until then, some flags were oddly proportioned, or even had six-pointed or eight-pointed stars.
Four years later, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation officially establishing a nationwide observance of Flag Day on June 14, the anniversary of the Flag Resolution of 1777.
In 1949, President Harry Truman signed legislation designating June 14 of each year as National Flag Day. Though Flag Day is not a federal holiday, the U.S. government encourages its citizens to display Old Glory outside of their homes and businesses. The tradition is not widely observed, however. To most folks, unfortunately, Flag Day is not on their radar screen.
The American Flag should be displayed on all days, especially on the following days:
• New Year’s Day, January 1
• Inauguration Day, January 20
• Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, third Monday in January
• Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12
• Washington’s Birthday, third Monday in February
• Vietnam War Veterans Day, March 29
• Easter Sunday
• Mother’s Day, second Sunday in May
• Armed Forces Day, third Saturday in May
• Memorial Day (half-staff until noon), the last Monday in May
• Flag Day, June 14
• Father’s Day, third Sunday in June
• Independence Day, July 4
• Labor Day
• Constitution Day, September 17
• Columbus Day
• Navy Day, October 27
• Veterans Day, November 11
• Thanksgiving Day
• Christmas Day.
Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973.