The History and Symbolism of the American Flag

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The History and Symbolism of the American Flag. Before there was a Stars & Stripes, there was a Grand Union Flag. It took many incarnations before we got to the Stars and Stripes we know and love.

Before there was a Stars & Stripes, there was a Grand Union Flag -- the first flag of the colonists that had any resemblance to our present emblem. Alike were the thirteen alternating red and white stripes, representing the original thirteen colonies, however the red cross of St. George of England superimposed over the white cross of St. Andrew of Scotland, not stars, adorned the Grand Union Flag's field of blue.

The banner remained our unofficial national flag and ensign of the Navy until June 14, 1777, when the Marine Committee of the Second Continental Congress at Philadelphia authorized the Stars and Stripes and put the matter to rest: "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. "

Since the resolution gave no specific instructions as to how many points the stars should have, or where they should be arranged on the blue union, you'll find all kinds of creative variations when looking at historic flags in museums. Some flag maker's flags staggered their stars in rows, others made circles of the thirteen stars while still others opted for completely random placement. Some stars had six points while others sported eight and the proportion ratio of the blue field to stripes varied from flag to flag. The matter was never completely solved until the signing of the Executive Order of June 24, 1912 which regulated such aesthetic matters.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no actual proof, but only anecdotal evidence, that Betsy Ross made the very first Stars and Stripes flag. It is known that Betsy did make many flags over a period of about fifty years, including many for the Pennsylvania State Navy. The legend first came to pass when William J. Canby, a grandson of Betsy's, before a meeting of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1870, first publicly told the story he first heard as a young child from his grandmother. Canby claimed that Colonel Ross with Robert Morris and General Washington commissioned his grandmother to make a flag from a rough drawing they brought to her. Canby speculated the date to be June of 1776, prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Flag Day
June 14 is the flag's official birthday and each year Americans throughout the country celebrate in Flag Day ceremonies on this day. The Stars and Stripes first flew in Flag Day festivities in 1861 in Hartford, Connecticut and the first national observance of Flag Day took place on the one hundred year anniversary of the flag -- June 14, 1877. President Woodrow Wilson first made Flag Day official in 1916, but it took Congress and President Harry Truman until 1949 to make this day a permanent observance. Although not celebrated as a Federal holiday, Americans everywhere continue to honor the flag and the ideals she represents to them on June 14th through school programs and civic observances.

In addition to being the editor of this website, Cheri Sicard is the author of The Great American Handbook (2002, Berkley Trade)