The History of the American Flag

Today the American flag consists of thirteen horizontal stripes; seven red stripes alternating with six white stripes representing the original 13 colonies. The stars represent the 50 states of the Union.

The colors of the flag are symbolic as well: Red symbolizes Hardiness and Valor, White symbolizes Purity and Innocence and Blue represents Vigilance, Perseverance and Justice.

The first legislation of the Continental Congress, on October 18, 1775, established a Federal navy, but, as far as is known, without a national ensign. Ships are reported to have been sent to sea under the pine-tree flag or possibly hoisted the colors of their originating State.

Two days later on October 20, 1775, Washington writes to Colonel Glover and Stephen Moyland, "Please fix upon some particular flag, and a signal by which our vessels may know one another. What do you think of a flag with a white ground, a tree in the middle, the motto, "Appeal to Heaven". This is the flag of our floating batteries. We are fitting out two vessels at Plymouth and when I next hear from you on this subject, I will let them know them know the flag and the signal, that we may distinguish our friends from our foes'.

Dr. Franklin, Mr. Lynch and Mr. Harrison, convening at the camp at Cambridge, were appointed to consider the subject. The result was the retention of the union jack (king's colors) representing the still-recognized sovereignty of England, but coupled to thirteen stripes, alternating red and white in place of the loyal red ensign. This symbolized the union of the thirteen colonies against the tyranny and oppression of Great Britain.

While not known with great certainty, it has been suggested that the origin of the stripes came from the ragtag Continental soldiers. The continental army of 1775 was without uniforms, and cloths of a stripe or ribbon distinguished the different grades. The daily view of these distinguishing marks of rank would naturally represent the United Colonies.

It will probably never be known who designed our union of stars. Neither Congressional records nor the public and private voluminous correspondence or diaries of the time refer to the creation of the stars.

It has been asked why the stars on our banner are five-pointed while, historically, those on our coins have been six-pointed. While there is a wonderful story about Betsy Ross favoring a five pointed star because of it's ease in construction (see further on), the answer is, that the designers of our early coins followed the English, and the designer of our flag the European custom. In the heraldic language of England, the star has six points; in the heraldry of Holland, France and Germany, the star is five-pointed.

The first unofficial national flag, called the Grand Union Flag or the Continental Colours, was raised at the behest of General Washington near his headquarters outside Boston, Massachusetts, on January 1, 1776 over the Cambridge camp when the Continental Army was reorganized in accordance with a Congressional resolution, which placed American forces under George Washington's control.

On that New Year's Day, the Continental Army was laying siege to Boston which had been taken over by the British Army. Washington ordered the Grand Union flag hoisted above his base at Prospect Hill. The flag had 13 alternating red and white horizontal stripes and the British Union Flag (a predecessor of the Union Jack) in the canton (the upper left-hand corner). Another early flag had a rattlesnake and the motto "Don't Tread on Me".

An anonymous letter, written January 2, 1776, says: "The grand union flag of thirteen stripes was raised on a height near Boston. The regulars did not understand it; and as the king's speech had just been read, as they supposed, they thought the new flag was a token of submission."

General Washington, writing to Joseph Reed on January 4th says: "We are at length favored with the sight of his Majesty's most gracious speech, breathing sentiments of tenderness and compassion for his deluded American subjects; the speech I send you [a volume of them was sent out by the Boston gentry] and, farcical enough, we have great joy to them without knowing or intending it, for on that day [the 2nd] which gave being to our new army, but before the proclamation came to hand, we hoisted the union flag in compliment to the United Colonies. But behold! It was received at Boston as a token of the deep impression the speech had made upon us, and as a signal of submission. By this time I presume they begin to think it strange that we have not made a formal surrender of our lines."

The first official national flag, also known as the Stars and Stripes, was approved by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777. The blue canton contained 13 stars, representing the original 13 colonies, but the layout varied. Although nobody knows exactly who designed the flag, it most likely was Continental Congress member Francis Hopkinson. (See Francis Hopkinson & the Design of the American Flag in "American Flag Stories" at the end of this article.)

In May of 1776, Betsy Ross reported that she sewed the first American flag.

According to popular legend, the first American flag was made by Betsy Ross, a Philadelphia seamstress who was acquainted with George Washington, leader of the Continental Army and other influential Philadelphians. In May 1776, so the story goes, General Washington and two representatives from the Continental Congress visited Ross at her upholstery shop and showed her a rough design of the flag. Although Washington initially favored using a star with six points, Ross advocated a five-pointed star, which she demonstrated could be cut with just one quick snip of the scissors; the gentlemen were won over.

Unfortunately, historians have never been able to verify this version of events. Although it is known that Ross made flags for the Pennsylvania Navy. The story of Washington's visit to the flag maker became popular about the time of the country's first centennial after William Canby, a grandson of Ross, told about her role in shaping U.S. history in a speech given at the Philadelphia Historical Society in March 1870. He claimed that his maternal grandmother, Mrs. John Ross, was the maker and partial designer of the first flag combining the stars and stripes. Three of Mrs. Ross's daughters were living when Mr. Canby wrote his paper confirming its content. (See Betsy Ross and the First American Flag under "American Flag Stories' at the end of this article.)

He asserts that, in June 1776, a committee of Congress accompanied by General Washington called upon Mrs. Ross, an upholsterer. They engaged her to make the flag from a rough drawing which was redrawn, at her suggestion, by General Washington in pencil in her back parlor. This flag was adopted by Congress and was, according to Mr. Canby, the first star-spangled banner. Mrs. Ross was employed as flag maker for the government for many years.

On July 4, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was adopted. The document was authenticated, like other papers of Congress, by the signatures of the President and Secretary. It was also signed by the members present with the exception of Mr. Dickenson, of New York who refused to sign. It did not yet bear the names of the members of Congress as we are familiar with it. Some days after the Declaration had been passed it was ordered to be engraved on parchment and signed by every member. It was not until the 2nd of August that these signatures were affixed. It is this copy which has been preserved as the first-signed paper does not exist and was probably destroyed.

The Declaration was not actually signed on the fourth of July. Mr. Read, whose name appears among the signers, was then actually against it; and Morris, Rush, Clymer, Smith, Taylor, and Ross, whose names also appear, were not members on that day, and were not appointed delegates until the 20th of July. Thornton, of New Hampshire, who entered Congress in November, then signed it and Judge McKeen who was present and voted for it, did not sign until after his return from Washington's camp. The Declaration was read in New York in the presence of Washington by one of his aids on July 9, 1776. In the center of a square of the troops in New York. It was not until September 9, 1776 that Congress ordered "all continental commissions and instruments should be made to read 'United States', where heretofore the words "United Colonies" had been used'.

In Philadelphia, the Committee of Safety proclaimed it from the old State House and the king's arms were taken from this courthouse and burned outside. On the 10th the Declaration was read at the head of the several brigades.

Thursday, July 18, 1776, it was proclaimed from the balcony of the State House in Boston, the king's arms and every similar sign be taken down and burned.

On June 14, 1777, Congress "Resolved that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes alternate red and white, that the Union be thirteen stars white in a blue field, representing a new constellation". As the exact arrangement of the stripes and stars was not specified, individual flag makers used their own judgment, producing several variants. Meanwhile other flags appeared, vessels of war are said to have worn a jack displaying a rattlesnake across thirteen red and white stripes, and merchantmen to have flown a flag having only thirteen stripes.

The first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1777, was celebrated in Philadelphia, with demonstrations of joy and festivity. About noon, all the armed ships and galleys in the river were drawn up before the city, with the colors of the United States and streamers flying. At one o'clock they celebrated the day by a discharge of thirteen cannon from each ship and one from each of the thirteen galleys, in honor of the thirteen United States. In the afternoon, Congress provided an elegant dinner, when toasts were drank and guns were fired. Congress and the General Officers reviewed the troops and the day closed with the ringing of bells and exhibition of fireworks, which began and ended with thirteen rockets.
At Charleston, South Carolina, at sunrise the same day, American colors were displayed from all the forts, batteries and vessels in the harbor and at one o'clock the forts discharged seventy-six pieces, celebrating the glorious year of 1776.

The thirteen stars and thirteen stripes were unfurled at the battle of Brandywine, September 11, 1777, eight days after the official announcement of them at Philadelphia, and at Germantown on the 4th of October; they witnessed the operations against and the surrender of Burgoyne, after the battle of Saratoga, October 17, 1777. The sight of this new flag helped to cheer the patriots of the army amid their sufferings around the camp fires at Valley Forge the ensuing winter. The Stars and stripes waived triumphant at the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown September 19, 1781; looked down upon the evacuations of New York, November 25, 1783; and shared in all the glories of the latter days of the Revolution.

When Vermont and Kentucky were admitted into the Union in 1791 and 1792 respectively, the American flag had to be altered and Congress enacted that "from and after May 1, 1795 the flag of the United States be fifteen stripes and the Union be fifteen stars'. It was this flag which inspired Francis Scott Key when he saw it flying over Fort McHenry, to write what is now the national anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner".

In 1818 after five more states had gained admittance, The Congressional Act of April 4, 1818, signed by President Monroe, fixed the number of stripes at 13 and required that the number of stars equal the number of states; one star for each state, to be added to the flag on the 4th of July following the admission of each new state. The last new star, bringing the total to 50, was added on July 4, 1960, after Hawaii became a state.

Between 1818 and 1960, Congress passed several acts that changed the shape, design and arrangement of the flag and allowed for additional stars and stripes to be added to reflect the admission of each new state.

By Executive Order of President Taft (June 24, 1912), the proportions of the flag were established. Also provided for were the arrangement of the stars in six horizontal rows of eight each, a single point of each star to be upward.

The Executive Order of President Eisenhower (January 3, 1959) provided for the arrangement of the stars in seven rows of seven stars each, staggered horizontally and vertically.

President Eisenhower's Executive Order (August 21, 1959) 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 is the national and merchant flag and ensign of the United States of America with thirteen stripes (seven red and six white) of the first Union and 50 stars representing the fifty states of the union.

The flag of the President of the United States, is the National Ensign, the flag of the sovereign people of whom he is the popular representative, and from whom he derives power and authority. The President is empowered to design his own flag, but its field is always blue. As presently in use, it displays the presidential seal; this shows the American Eagle grasping in its talons the emblems of peace and war, thirteen arrows and an olive branch, having thirteen leaves. Thirteen stars appear around its head and it is surrounded by a circle of fifty stars, symbolizing the original and the present number of states in the Union. A shield of the national colors bearing seven white and six red stripes also appears, and the Latin motto E Pluribus Unum signifies "From Many, One". It is hoisted at the main and denotes his presence on board a war ship.

The Vice-President and members of the Cabinet (the Secretary of Navy excepted) are also designated by the national flag worn at the fore during their presence on board a vessel of war, and it always floats at the Capitol over the Senate-Chamber and House of Representatives whenever those bodies are in session, - a custom followed in all or most of the States of the Union whenever their legislative bodies are in session.
A special mark for the Secretary of the Navy, established in 1866, was a square blue flag having a white foul anchor placed vertically in the center with four white stars surrounding it, one in each corner of the flag.
Each of the States of our Union and the Territories have flags of their own. This flag is carried by the State militia into battle or on parade side by side with the national standard.


"Old Glory!"

This famous name was coined by Captain William Driver, ship master of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1831. As he was leaving on one of his many voyages aboard the brig Charles Doggett friends presented him with a beautiful American flag of twenty four stars. As the banner opened to the ocean breeze for the first time, he exclaimed "Old Glory!" (This voyage would climax with the rescue of the mutineers of the Bounty).

Captain Driver retired to Nashville in 1837, taking his treasured American flag from his sea days with him. By the time the Civil War erupted, most everyone in and around Nashville recognized Captain Driver's "Old Glory." When Tennessee seceded from the Union, Rebels were determined to destroy his flag, but repeated searches revealed no trace of the hated banner.

Then on February 25th, 1862, Union forces captured Nashville and raised the American flag over the capital. It was a rather small ensign and immediately folks began asking Captain Driver if "Old Glory" still existed. Happy to have soldiers with him this time, Captain Driver went home and began ripping at the seams of his bed cover. As the stitches holding the quilt-top to the batting unraveled, the onlookers peered inside and saw the 24-starred original "Old Glory"!

Captain Driver gently gathered up the flag and returned with the soldiers to the capitol. Though he was sixty years old, the Captain climbed up to the tower to replace the smaller banner with his beloved flag. The Sixth Ohio Regiment cheered and saluted - and later adopted the nickname "Old Glory" as their own, telling and re-telling the story of Captain Driver's devotion to the flag we still honor today.

Captain Driver's grave is located in the old Nashville City Cemetery and is one of three (3) places authorized by act of Congress where the Flag of the United States may be flown 24 hours a day.

A caption above a faded black and white picture in the book, The Stars and the Stripes, states that 'Old Glory' may no longer be opened to be photographed, and no color photograph is available." Visible in the photo in the lower right corner of the canton is an applique anchor, Captain Driver's very personal note. "Old Glory" is the most illustrious of a number of flags - both Northern and Confederate - reputed to have been similarly hidden, then later revealed as times changed. The flag was given to his granddaughter or niece who later donated it to the Smithsonian.

Betsy Ross Maker of the First American Flag

According to popular legend, the first American flag was made by Betsy Ross, a Philadelphia seamstress who was acquainted with George Washington, leader of the Continental Army and other influential Philadelphians. In May 1776, so the story goes, General Washington and two representatives from the Continental Congress visited Ross at her upholstery shop and showed her a rough design of the flag. Although Washington initially favored using a star with six points, Ross advocated a five-pointed star, which she demonstrated, could be cut with just one quick snip of the scissors, and the gentlemen were won over. Thus, in May of 1776, Betsy Ross reported that she sewed the first American flag.

Unfortunately, historians have never been able to verify this version of events. Although it is known that Ross made flags for the Pennsylvania Navy. The story of Washington's visit to the flag maker became popular about the time of the country's first centennial, after William Canby, a grandson of Ross, told about her role in shaping U.S. history in a speech given at the Philadelphia Historical Society in March 1870.

What follows is the true story, to the best of our understanding.

Betsy would often tell her children, grandchildren, relatives and friends of the fateful day when three members of a secret committee from the Continental Congress came to call upon her. Those representatives, George Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross, asked her to sew the first flag. This meeting occurred in her home some time late in May 1776. George Washington was then the head of the Continental Army. Robert Morris, an owner of vast amounts of land, was perhaps the wealthiest citizen in the Colonies.

Colonel George Ross was a respected Philadelphian and also the uncle of her late husband, John Ross. Naturally, Betsy Ross already knew George Ross as she had married his nephew. Furthermore, Betsy was also acquainted with the great General Washington. Not only did they both worship at Christ Church in Philadelphia, but Betsy's pew was next to George and Martha Washington's pew.

Her daughter recalled, "That she was previously well acquainted with Washington, and that he had often been in her house in friendly visits, as well as on business. That she had embroidered ruffles for his shirt bosoms and cuffs, and that it was partly owing to his friendship for her that she was chosen to make the flag."

In June 1776, brave Betsy was a widow struggling to run her own upholstery business. Upholsterers in colonial America not only worked on furniture but did all manner of sewing work, which included making flags. According to Betsy, General Washington showed her a rough design of the flag that included a six-pointed star. Betsy, a standout with the scissors, demonstrated how to cut a five-pointed star in a single snip. Impressed, the committee entrusted Betsy with making our first flag.

Betsy Ross is often credited for creating the first American flag, yet, most probably she was the person responsible for sewing the first American flag. According to the legend, George Washington himself approached Elizabeth Ross in 1777 and asked her to create a flag from a sketch he drew. She then sewed this first flag for the new country. However, the story is open to interpretation. There is no record of this inciden discussed in any official or anecdotal documents of the time. In fact, the story was not told until 94 years after the event took place by one of Betsy Ross' grandsons, William J. Canby.

During the Revolutionary War, several patriots made flags for our new nation. Among them were Cornelia Bridges, Rebecca Young, and Elizabeth (Betsy) Ross, all of whom were from Pennsylvania, and John Shaw of Annapolis, Maryland.

Although Betsy Ross, the best known of these persons, made flags for 50 years, there is no proof that she made the first Stars and Stripes. It is known that she made flags for the Pennsylvania State Navy in 1777. The flag popularly known as the "Betsy Ross flag", which arranged the stars in a circle, did not appear until the early 1790's.

The claims of Betsy Ross were first brought to the attention of the public in 1870 by one of her grandsons, William J. Canby. In a paper he read before the meeting of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Canby stated:

"It is not tradition, it is report from the lips of the principal participator in the transaction, directly told not to one or two, but a dozen or more living witnesses, of which I myself am one, though but a little boy when I heard it. ... Colonel Ross with Robert Morris and General Washington, called on Mrs. Ross and told her they were a committee of Congress and wanted her to make a flag from the drawing, a rough one, which, upon her suggestions, was redrawn by General Washington in pencil in her back parlor. This was prior to the Declaration of Independence. I fix the date to be during Washington's visit to Congress from New York in June, 1776 when he came to confer upon the affairs of the Army, the flag being no doubt, one of these affairs."

More interesting than this legend, however, is the origin of the original flag having a circle of stars. An artist named Charles Weisgerber actually designed the flag in this manner for the painting, "Birth of Our Nation's Flag." This painting was eventually copied into American History texts and became 'fact'.

So what is the true origin of the flag?

It is believed that Francis Hopkinson, a Congressman from New Jersey and patriot, was the true designer of the flag. In fact, the journals of the Continental Congress show that he designed the flag.

Francis Hopkinson and the Design of the American Flag

Francis Hopkinson was a popular patriot, lawyer, Congressman from New Jersey, signer of the Declaration of Independence, poet, artist and distinguished civil servant. He almost certainly was the person who designed the first Stars and Stripes.

He was appointed to the Continental Navy Board on November 6,1776. It was while serving on the Continental Navy Board that he turned his attention to designing the United States flag. The use of stars in that design is believed to have been the result of an experience in the war directly related to his property.

A book in Hopkinson's library at his home in Bordentown was taken by a Hessian soldier in December 1776, a dark year of the war. The book, Discourses on Public Occasions in America (London, 1762) by William Smith,D.D., had been a gift to him by the author. The soldier, one I. Ewald, wrote on the inside cover that he had seen the author near Philadelphia and that he, Ewald, had taken the book from a fine country seat near Philadelphia. The book was subsequently given to someone in Philadelphia who returned it to Hopkinson. The soldier had written above and below Hopkinson's bookplate, which had three six pointed stars and his family motto, "Semper Paratus", or "Always Ready". The safe return of the book may well have symbolized to Hopkinson the revival of the Americans hope.

In a letter to the Board of Admiralty in 1780 Hopkinson asserted that he had designed "the flag of the United States of America" as well as several ornaments, devices and checks appearing on bills of exchange, ship papers, the seals of the boards of Admiralty and Treasury, and the Great Seal of the United States. Hopkinson had received nothing for this work and now he submitted a bill and asked "whether a Quarter Cask of the public wine" would not be a reasonable and proper reward for his labors.

The Board forwarded the letter to Congress, which referred it to the Board of Treasury. Apparently acting on a request from Congress, Hopkinson sent a detailed bill on June 6th, and it was sent to the auditor general, James Milligan. Milligan sent it to the commissioners of the Chamber of Accounts, who replied six days later on June 12th that they were of the opinion that the charges were reasonable and ought to be paid. Milligan gave the report a favorable endorsement and passed it on to the Board of Treasury. The board now raised objections and returned the bill to the auditor general on the grounds that no vouchers were included with the bill.

Hopkinson now submitted a new copy of his bill and itemized each charge but it was rejected once again and the auditor asked once more for its favorable consideration. After another round of referral through the departments, the board filed the correspondence and did nothing for two and half months. Fed up with the delay, Hopkinson wrote to Charles Lee, the secretary of the Board of Treasury, accusing him of lying about having received the amended bill and delaying the settlement of his claim. Lee failed to satisfy Hopkinson and the latter sent to Congress a list of charges against the board.

Just as in our modern times, Congress appointed a committee to investigate the matter. The various government officers concerned with the claim appeared before the committee at its request. Only the men of the Board of Treasury ignored the summons. In its report to Congress, the committee recommended that the present board be dismissed.

Congress sent the report back to the committee for further consideration and another investigation and another report followed. In its second report the committee noted that this time the members of the Board of Treasury answered the summons, but frequently tried to dictate the way in which the investigation should be made. The committee felt that the Treasury should be directed by a single individual responsible to Congress, but made no recommendation in regard to Hopkinson's claim. The matter remained unsettled until August 23rd,1781, when Congress passed a resolution asking that the claim be acted on. Meanwhile, Hopkinson had grown weary of the controversy and on July 23rd, 1781, he resigned his office as Treasurer of Loans. One of Hopkinsons chief opponents on the board of Treasury resigned the same day.

Between the first and second report of the committee, the Board of Treasury gave its own report to Congress on the history of the Hopkinson claim. Aside from the lack of vouchers, the members of the board knew that "Hopkinson was not the only person consulted" on the matter of designs and therefore could not rightly claim the whole amount and in addition, the board felt that the public was entitled to these extra services from men who drew high salaries.

Though Hopkinson's political adversaries blocked all attempts to have him paid for his services, they never denied that he made the designs. The journals of the Continental Congress clearly show that he designed the flag.

The design of the first Stars and Stripes by Hopkinson had the thirteen stars arranged in a "staggered" pattern technically known as quincuncial because it is based on the repetition of a motif of five units. This arraignment inevitably results in a strongly diagonal effect. In a flag of thirteen stars, this placement produced the unmistakable outline of the crosses of St. George and of St. Andrew, as used together on the British flag. Whether this similarity was intentional or accidental, it may explain why the plainer fashion of placing the stars in three parallel rows was preferred by many Americans over the quincuncial style.