American Flag HistoryUpdated: July 11, 2021
The American flag obviously has an important place in American history. The flag is raised and lowered at military bases all over the world for reveille and retreat; this raising and lowering symbolically opens and closes the duty day and pays homage to the fallen.
Flags are lowered to half-staff during periods of national mourning, and the flag is carried at sporting events, funerals, and even some weddings.
The American flag is not something most people think of as being shrouded by mystery, but the fact is that confusion does exist surrounding the origins of its design and its creation.
American students used to grow up being taught some variation on a theme involving Betsy Ross being responsible or sharing responsibility for what we now know as the American flag. The truth is a bit murkier and the details might surprise you.
For example, did you know that the American flag did not exist as such at the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775? American colonists did not rally under a national flag, but instead fought against the Redcoats using regimental flags, unit flags, etc.
The now-controversial “Don’t Tread On Me” flag featuring a coiled snake actually pre-dates the official American flag used today, and while many such flags were carried, none of them had the “stars and stripes” configuration we see today.
Some may be disappointed to learn that the Betsy Ross origin story of the flag is likely not accurate. Betsy Ross herself didn’t lobby to make herself known as such, and it would take roughly 100 years before her descendants would try to make the case.
Not even the flag’s nickname as “the Star-Spangled Banner” has a clear history to it. Did you know that the original name of this song penned by Francis Scott Key, later to become our national anthem by that name, was originally a poem by Key titled, The Defence of Fort McHenry? (Yes, “defense” is spelled with a “c” in this poem title.) The title of the poem that became our national anthem as we know it today didn’t come until later.
A Brief History of The American Flag
The American flag would not get its day until 1777 when the Continental Congress passed a law requiring an official flag for America. Prior to this, some sources report that George Washington wanted a flag that looked very much like the Union Jack, the flag of the British Empire.
At this time, the History Channel reports that a proto-flag displaying “Continental Colors” was flown by some U.S. Navy ships and at certain Army installations.
This flag, which features 13 stripes in a red-and-white alternating pattern and displaying a Union Jack in the upper left corner, is said to have been a compromise to appease those who wanted to completely pull away from Britain, and those who wanted greater independence but maintain some association with England.
On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress passed a resolution detailing the configuration of the United States flag. “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.”
This American flag would be created, but the origin story of the actual first U.S. flag is a mystery. Nobody knows definitively who designed the flag or why the specific style and colors were selected. The two people most commonly named as the designers of the American flag are Betsy Ross and Francis Hopkinson. However, there are no records that prove with absolute certainty who the original designer is.
History.com says the legends that, “Betsy Ross made the first American flag in 1776 after being asked to do so by Washington,” aren’t backed up by historic records. “Primary sources backing up that assertion,” History.com says, “are scarce.”
Some writers attribute the flag’s design to Francis Hopkinson, who signed the Declaration of Independence as a New Jersey Delegate. According to some historical sources, Hopkinson petitioned the federal government for payment for his work designing “a flag” of the United States. In letters from Hopkinson though, he often refers to the Great Naval Flag of the United States, and graphic renderings currently published are conjectural.
History also shows that Hopkinson was denied this payment with the explanation that he was not the only person the government spoke to about the design, colors, etc.
Flying The Flag
Believe it or not, history doesn’t reflect thousands of Americans rushing to display the new flag. America wouldn’t see that level of interest in this long-time symbol of patriotism until the outbreak of the Civil War. Suddenly, from 1861 forward, national interest in the American flag was growing.
But even with what some historians actually label the “cult of the flag” relating to what historian Mark Leepson, author of Flag: An American Biography, referred to as a near-religious reverence of the flag beginning at the Civil War Era.
In 1885, there was talk of creating a special holiday to honor the flag, but it would take until 1949 for this idea to get traction on a national level. President Harry S. Truman announced June 14 as Flag Day, and this observance has been held ever since.
It is not technically a federal holiday–banks and schools stay open and in the minds of many, Flag Day is more about awareness-raising than holding special events.
Symbolism Of The American Flag
The design of the flag is steeped in symbolism as you might expect. The flag has changed many times over the years-between the first congressional act that brought it into existence and further legislation that extended all the way into the 1960s. The flag has changed as our nation has changed.
The basic colors of the flag have been interpreted and re-interpreted over the years. The original choices of red, white, and blue come from a tradition of military flags that have flown in previous eras, and other forms of heraldry.
The symbolism we understand today–that the color red represents patriotic blood spilled on behalf of the Union, that white signifies purity, and that blue represents justice and patriotism–those interpretations were not present at the time of the original design. Over time, these interpretations have grown along with the flag itself.
The original flag represented the 13 colonies. The “original 13” are represented by the red and white stripes. Stars would be added to represent the states in the union, and by the time the “lower 48” states all found representation on the flag it would take a few years, but two more states (Hawaii and Alaska) would be added to the flag to represent all 50 states.
How the Flag Came to be Called Old Glory
For nearly two centuries, the American flag has been called Old Glory and has become a common nickname used to describe the American flag. However, the flag wasn’t always referred to as “Old Glory,” but during the Civil War one flag owner, Massachusetts resident William Driver, saw his 10-foot-plus flag defaced repeatedly by Confederate sympathizers–Driver proudly flew his Old Glory while living in Tennessee during the Civil War.
This made national news and the flag ultimately found a forever home at the National Museum of American History in 2006. If it weren’t for Driver, the American flag probably wouldn’t have the nickname of Old Glory.
Driver later wrote about the American flag and said “It has ever been my staunch companion and protection. Savages and heathens, lowly and oppressed, hailed and welcomed it at the far end of the wide world. Then, why should it not be called Old Glory?”
American Flag Trivia
Nicknames for the American flag include the Old Glory, Star-Spangled Banner, the Stars and Stripes and Red, White and Blue.
There is a Flag Code that dictates the display, care, and disposal of American flags. The flag code is not a federal law that carries punishments for violations. It is a guide to the traditional care and disposition of the flag, rather than a legal document.
Flags may be burned under a variety of circumstances, but in general burning is not recommended for flags unless they become unserviceable. There is no penalty for American flags burned under protest, though many have tried to codify “flag protection” laws as high as the Supreme Court.
There are 50 stars and 13 stripes on the American flag. The 50 stars represent each of the 50 states in the U.S. and the 13 stripes represent the original 13 colonies that became the first states in the Union.
Red symbolizes hardiness and valor, white symbolizes purity and innocence, and blue represents vigilance, perseverance and justice.
The 50th star, representing Hawaii, was added to the United States flag in 1960, one year after Hawaii became a state.
The bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore is what inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that later became the song, The Star-Spangled Banner on Sept. 14, 1814. But this did not become the official National Anthem until as late as 1931.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News