James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Remembers: Happy Flag Day!

by James M. Lindsay
June 14, 2011

American flags seen at the Washington Monument. (Kevin Lamarque/courtesy Reuters)

American flags seen at the Washington Monument. (Kevin Lamarque/courtesy Reuters)

Happy Flag Day everyone. Two hundred and thirty-four years ago today, the Second Continental Congress adopted the design that became the American flag. So Happy Birthday, Stars and Stripes!

Here a few facts about the flag:

  • Most colonial flags did not feature stripes. They instead featured “beavers, pine trees, rattlesnakes, anchors, and various other insignia…affixed to different banners with mottoes such as ‘Hope,’ ‘Liberty,’ or ‘Appeal to Heaven,’ and spoke to the first colonists struggle with the elements in the new territory.”
  • The flag that flew in Philadephia on July 4, 1776 was the Grand Union Flag. It had thirteen horizontal stripes representing the colonies, and it bore the red cross of St. George of England with the white cross of St. Andrew of Scotland.
  • Betsy Ross did make flags in Philadelphia in the 1770s, but she almost certainly did not make the first American flag. The story that she did was first told by her grandson in 1870, or ninety-three years after the flag debuted. His evidence? Family stories.
  • Red, white, and blue appear to have been chosen as the flag’s colors because those were the flag colors that the colonials were most accustomed to; after all, they are the colors of the Union Jack. Nonetheless, many people think that the color choice was deliberate and symbolic. That’s probably because five years after the first flag design was chosen, Charles Thompson, the secretary to the Continental Congress, wrote in a report about the creation of the Great Seal that the colors had specific meaning: “The colors of the pales (the vertical stripes) are those used in the flag of the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue, the color of the Chief (the broad band above the stripes) signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice.”
  • No one agrees on why the five-pointed star design was chosen. Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, is thought to have conceived of the stars in the flag. One historical oddity: the stars on the ceiling of the Oval Office have eight points. No one knows for sure why.
  • President Woodrow Wilson first proclaimed Flag Day by executive order in 1916. In 1949, President Harry Truman signed an Act of Congress formally establishing National Flag Day.
  • Pennsylvania is the only state to celebrate Flag Day as a state holiday.
  • Specific rules govern how the flag should be displayed. If you want to brush up on them, try here and here.

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