The story of the Stars and Stripes is the story of the nation itself; the evolution of the US Flag is symbolic of the evolution of our free institutions and their development as part of the great nation they represent.
In the early days of the Republic, when the thirteen original states were still British Colonies, the banners borne by the Revolutionary forces were widely varied.
The local flags and colonial devices displayed in battle on land and sea during the first months of the American Revolution carried the various grievances that the individual states had against the Mother Country.
The first public reference to the flag was published on March 10, 1774. A Boston newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, ran this poem to the flag:
“A ray of bright glory now beams from afar.
Blest drawn of an empire to rise:
The American Ensign now sparkles a star
Which shall shortly flame wide through the skies.”
On June 15, 1775, when General Washington was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental forces for the defense of American liberty, the Continental Congress was still corresponding with King George to present their grievances.
In the fall of 1775, the revolting colonies chose a flag that reflected their feeling of unity with the Mother Country, but also expressed their demand to obtain justice and liberty.
In Taunton, MA a flag was unfurled in 1774 which carried the British Jack in the canton and was combined with a solid red field with the words, “Liberty and Union” printed on it.
The famous “Rattlesnake” flag carried by the Minutemen in 1775 showed thirteen red and white stripes with a rattlesnake emblazoned across it and the warning words “Don’t Tread on Me.”
In 1775 the banner that flew over Fort Moultrie displayed a crescent on a blue field with the word “Liberty” printed in white. When this flag was shot down by enemy muskets a brave sergeant named Jasper nailed it back to the staff at the risk of his life
The “Pine Tree Flag” which flew over the troops at Bunker Hill in 1775 displayed a pine tree, symbol of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was a white flag with a top and bottom stripe of blue that showed a green pine tree with the words “Liberty Tree-An Appeal to God”.
The first flag, or ensign, to represent the colonies at sea was raised by John Paul Jones from the ship, Alfred, on Dec. 3, 1775. On Jan. 2nd, 1776 George Washington displayed this same design and named it the Grand Union Flag. It had thirteen alternate red and white stripes and a blue field with the crosses of Saint Andrew and Saint George on it.
After July 4, 1776 the people of the colonies felt the need of a national flag to symbolize their new spirit of unity and independence. In order to establish an official US Flag for the new nation, the Continental Congress passed the first “Flag Act”: which stated,
“Resolved that the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes alternate red and white: that the union be thirteen stars, white on a blue field.”
The significance of the colors was defined thus: “White signifies Purity and Innocence; Red, Hardiness and Valor; Blue, Vigilance, Perseverance and Justice.”
Francis Hopkinson, signer of the Declaration of Independence and a member of the Continental Congress, is credited with having designed the US Flag
Betsy Ross, a flag maker of Philadelphia, is credited by some historians with having made the first flag and with having suggested that the stars be five-pointed. The home of Betsy Ross, at 239 Arch Street, Philadelphia, is a National Shrine. The flag flies on a staff from her third floor window. Thousands of people of all nations visit this house, which is known as the Birthplace of Old Glory.
Betsy Ross had a grandson, William J. Canby, who wrote in 1857 that he was told the story as a boy of eleven by his eighty-four-year old grandmother.
It is true that Betsy Ross was known as a flag maker and that there is in the archives of the Navy an order to Elizabeth Ross “for making Ships Colors for 14 pounds 12 shillings and 2 pence”. This was paid to her exactly two weeks before the Marine Committee’s resolution of June 14th, 1777 which adopted the theme of the red and white striped Union Flag of Holland to the flag of the 13 United States of America.
In 1777 Ezra Stiles, President of Yale University, recorded in his diary the resolution passed by Congress stating:
“The Congress have substituted a new Constella of 13 stars (in place of the union) in the Continental Colors.”
On May 1, 1795 the US Flag was changed to 15 stripes and 15 stars with the inclusion of Vermont (1791) and Kentucky (1792) into the Union.
It was this flag that was “so gallantly streaming” over Fort McHenry when Francis Scott Key wrote The Star Spangled Banner. The 15 striped, 15 starred flag was used from 1795 to 1818.
On April 4, 1818 Congress enacted the following law which is still in effect:
“That the Flag of the United States be 13 horizontal stripes, alternate red and white, and that on the admission of every State into the Union, one star to be added on the Fourth of July next succeeding admission.”
From 1818 to 1912 the US Flag changed 23 times as the arrangement of stars was reconfigured each year that new states were added to the Union.
On June 24, 1912, the Executive Order of President Taft established the proportions of the flag. It also specified the arrangement of the stars in six horizontal rows of eight each and that a single point of each star should point upward.
Two Executive Orders of President Eisenhower in 1959 provided for an arrangement of 49 stars when Alaska entered the Union and then for an arrangement of 50 stars when Hawaii entered the Union.
There have been no further changes to the US Flag.
Listen to Red Skelton’s of The Pledge of Allegience to the Flag. CLICK HERE.