During the night of September 13, 1814, the British fleet bombarded Fort McHenry in the harbor at Baltimore, Maryland. Francis Scott Key, a 34-year-old lawyer-poet, watched the attack from the deck of a British prisoner-exchange ship.
He had gone to seek the release of a friend, but they were refused permission to go ashore until after the attack had been made. As the battle ceased on the following morning, Key turned his telescope to the fort and saw that the Stars and Stripes American flag was still waving. The sight so inspired him that he pulled a letter from his pocket and began to write the poem, which eventually was adopted as the national anthem of the United States—“The Star-Spangled Banner.” Key was returned to Baltimore and later that day took a room at a Baltimore tavern where he completed the poem.
Years later, Key told a hometown audience in Frederick, Maryland:
I saw the flag of my country waving over a city—the strength and pride of my native State—a city devoted to plunder and desolation by its assailants. I witnessed the preparation for its assaults. I saw the array of its enemies as they advanced to the attack. I heard the sound of battle; the noise of the conflict fell upon my listening ear, and told me that ‘the brave and the free’ had met the invaders.”
The Joint Committee on Printing is pleased to present the latest edition of Our Flag the beautiful Stars and Stripes. This Congressional publication briefly describes the history of the flag, and sets forth the practices and observances appropriate to its display. The Committee hopes that this document will be both useful and informative to its audience.
History of the Stars and Stripes
The Stars and Stripes originated as a result of a resolution adopted by the Marine Committee of the Second Continental Congress at Philadelphia on June 14, 1777.
The resolution read:
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.”
The resolution gave no instruction as to how many points the stars should have, nor how the stars should be arranged on the blue union. Consequently, some flags had stars scattered on the blue field without any specific design, some arranged the stars in rows, and some in a circle. The first Navy Stars and Stripes had the stars arranged in staggered formation in alternate rows of threes and twos on a blue field. Other Stars and Stripes flags had stars arranged in alternate rows of four, five and four. Some stars had six points while others had eight.
Strong evidence indicates that Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was responsible for the stars in the U.S. flag. At the time that the flag resolution was adopted, Hopkinson was the Chairman of the Continental Navy Board’s Middle Department. Hopkinson also helped design other devices for the Government including the Great Seal of the United States. For his services, Hopkinson submitted a letter to the Continental Admiralty Board asking “whether a Quarter Cask of the public Wine will not be a proper & reasonable Reward for these Labours of Fancy and a suitable Encouragement to future Exertions of a like Nature.” His request was turned down since the Congress regarded him as a public servant.
An Early Stars and Stripes Flag
During the Revolutionary War, several patriots made flags for our new Nation. Among them were Cornelia Bridges, Elizabeth (Betsy) Ross, and Rebecca Young, all of 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.”
Grand Union Flag
The first flag of the colonists to have any resemblance to the present Stars and Stripes was the Grand Union Flag, sometimes referred to as the Congress Colors, the First Navy Ensign, and the Cambridge Flag. Its design consisted of 13 stripes, alternately red and white, representing the Thirteen Colonies, with a blue field in the upper left-hand corner bearing the red cross of St. George of England with the white cross of St. Andrew of Scotland. As the flag of the revolution it was used on many occasions. It was first flown by the ships of the Colonial Fleet on the Delaware River. On December 3, 1775, it was raised aboard Captain Esek Hopkin’s flag-ship Alfred by John Paul Jones, then a Navy lieutenant. Later the flag was raised on the liberty pole at Prospect Hill, which was near George Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was our unofficial national flag on July 4, 1776, Independence Day; and it remained the unofficial national flag and ensign of the Navy until June 14, 1777, when the Continental Congress authorized the Stars and Stripes.
Interestingly, the Grand Union Flag also was the standard of the British East India Company. It was only by degrees that the Union Flag of Great Britain was discarded. The final breach between the Colonies and Great Britain brought about the removal of the British Union from the canton of our striped flag and the substitution of stars on a blue field.
Fifteen Stars and Stripes Flag
When two new States were admitted to the Union (Kentucky and Vermont), a resolution was adopted in January of 1794, expanding the flag to 15 stars and 15 stripes. This flag was the official flag of our country from 1795 to 1818, and was prominent in many historic events. It inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the bombardment of Fort McHenry; it was the first flag to be flown over a fortress of the Old World when American Marine and Naval forces raised it above the pirate stronghold in Tripoli on April 27, 1805; it was the ensign of American forces in the Battle of Lake Erie in September of 1813; and it was flown by General Jackson in New Orleans in January of 1815.
However, realizing that the flag would become unwieldy with a stripe for each new State, Capt. Samuel C. Reid, USN, suggested to Congress that the stripes remain 13 in number to represent the Thirteen Colonies and that a star be added to the blue field for each new State coming into the Union. Accordingly, on April 4, 1818, President Monroe accepted a bill requiring that the flag of the United States have a union of 20 stars, white on a blue field, and that upon admission of each new State into the Union one star be added to the union of the flag on the fourth of July following its date of admission. The 13 alternating red and white stripes would remain unchanged. This act succeeded in prescribing the basic design of the flag, while assuring that the growth of the Nation would be properly symbolized.
Eventually, the growth of the country resulted in a flag with 48 stars upon the admission of Arizona and New Mexico in 1912. Alaska added a 49th in 1959, and Hawaii a 50th star in 1960. With the 50-star flag came a new design and arrangement of the stars in the union, a requirement met by President Eisenhower in Executive Order No. 10834, issued August 21, 1959. To conform with this, a national banner with 50 stars became the official flag of the United States. The flag was raised for the first time at 12:01 a.m. on July 4, 1960, at the Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore, Maryland.
Traditionally a symbol of liberty, the American flag has carried the message of freedom to many parts of the world. Sometimes the same flag that was flying at a crucial moment in our history has been flown again in another place to symbolize continuity in our struggles for the cause of liberty.
One of the most memorable is the flag that flew over the Capitol in Washington on December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. This same flag was raised again on December 8 when war was declared on Japan, and three days later at the time of the declaration of war against Germany and Italy. President Roosevelt called it the “flag of liberation” and carried it with him to the Casablanca Conference and on other historic occasions. It flew from the mast of the U.S.S. Missouri during the formal Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945.
Another historic flag is the one that flew over Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It also was present at the United Nations Charter meeting in San Francisco, California, and was used at the Big Three Conference at Potsdam, Germany. This same flag flew over the White House on August 14, 1945, when the Japanese accepted surrender terms.
Following the War of 1812, a great wave of nationalistic spirit spread throughout the country; the infant Republic had successfully defied the might of an empire. As this spirit spread, the Stars and Stripes became a symbol of sovereignty. The homage paid that banner is best expressed by what the gifted men of later generations wrote concerning it.
The writer Henry Ward Beecher said:
A thoughtful mind when it sees a nation’s flag, sees not the flag, but the nation itself. And whatever may be its symbols, its insignia, he reads chiefly in the flag, the government, the principles, the truths, the history that belongs to the nation that sets it forth. The American flag has been a symbol of Liberty and men rejoiced in it.
“The stars upon it were like the bright morning stars of God, and the stripes upon it were beams of morning light. As at early dawn the stars shine forth even while it grows light, and then as the sun advances that light breaks into banks and streaming lines of color, the glowing red and intense white striving together, and ribbing the horizon with bars effulgent, so, on the American flag, stars and beams of many-colored light shine out together ….”
In a 1917 Flag Day message, President Wilson said:
This flag, which we honor and under which we serve, is the emblem of our unity, our power, our thought and purpose as a nation. It has no other character than that which we give it from generation to generation. The choices are ours. It floats in majestic silence above the hosts that execute those choices, whether in peace or in war. And yet, though silent, it speaks to us—speaks to us of the past, of the men and women who went before us, and of the records they wrote upon it.
“We celebrate the day of its birth; and from its birth until now it has witnessed a great history, has floated on high the symbol of great events, of a great plan of life worked out by a great people….
“Woe be to the man or group of men that seeks to stand in our way in this day of high resolution when every principle we hold dearest is to be vindicated and made secure for the salvation of the nation. We are ready to plead at the bar of history, and our flag shall wear a new luster. Once more we shall make good with our lives and fortunes the great faith to which we were born, and a new glory shall shine in the face of our people.”
Early American Flags
Archeological digs in northern India, dating around 3,500 B.C., have uncovered a seal, used to sign documents. The seal shows a procession of seven men carrying square standards, held aloft on poles like modern flags. While these ancient flags were rigid, like boards, and not made of cloth as modern flags are, they provided ample testimony that heraldry and the displaying of banners dated to the earliest civilizations.
In American history, the Vikings carried a flag which bore a black raven on a field of white. In 1492 Columbus sailed to our shores with his three small ships displaying the Spanish flag bearing two red lions on two white fields and two yellow castles on two red fields. The Dutch brought their own striped flags when they settled in New Amsterdam, which we now call New York, and pioneers from other nations also brought along the standards of their countries when they settled on our shores.
It is only natural, therefore, that America should create colonial flags as soon as the first colonists settled. Given the disparate array of settlers, it is not surprising that a wide variety of flags was created.
The first flags adopted by our colonial forebears were symbolic of their struggles with the wilderness of the new land. Beavers, pine trees, rattlesnakes, anchors and various other insignia were affixed to different banners with mottoes such as “Hope,” “Liberty,” “An Appeal to Heaven,” or “Don’t Tread on Me.”
In the early days of the Revolution, there were colonial and regimental flags by the score. The Boston Liberty flag, consisting of nine alternate red and white horizontal stripes, flew over the Liberty Tree, a fine old elm in Hanover Square in Boston, where the Sons of Liberty met. Still another was a white flag with a green pine tree and the inscription, “An Appeal to Heaven.” This particular flag became familiar on the seas as the ensign of the cruisers commissioned by General Washington, and was noted by many English newspapers of the time.
Flags with a rattlesnake theme also gained increasing prestige with colonists. The slogan “Don’t Tread on Me” almost invariably appeared on rattlesnake flags. A flag of this type was the standard of the South Carolina Navy. Another, the Gadsden flag, consisted of a yellow field with a rattlesnake in a spiral coil, poised to strike, in the center. Below the snake was the motto, “Don’t Tread on Me.”
Similar was the Culpepper flag, banner of the Minutemen of Culpepper (now spelled Culpeper) County, Virginia. It consisted of a white field with a rattlesnake in a spiral coil in the center. Above the rattlesnake was the legend “The Culpepper Minute Men” and below, the motto, “Liberty or Death” as well as “Don’t Tread on Me.”
In December of 1775, an anonymous Philadelphia correspondent wrote to Bradford’s Pennsylvania Journal concerning the symbolic use of the snake. He began the letter by saying:
I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids. She may, therefore, be esteemed an emblem of vigilance. She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders. She is, therefore, an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.”
It was probably the deadly bite of the rattler, however, which was foremost in the minds of its designers, and the threatening slogan “Don’t Tread on Me” added further significance to the design.
The Moultrie flag was the first distinctive American flag displayed in the South. It flew over the ramparts of the fort on Sullivan’s Island, which lies in the channel leading to Charleston, South Carolina, when the British fleet attacked on June 28, 1776. The British ships bombarded the fort for 10 hours. But the garrison, consisting of some 375 regulars and a few militia, under the command of Col. William Moultrie, put up such a gallant defense that the British were forced to withdraw under cover of darkness. This victory saved the southern Colonies from invasion for another two years. The Fort Moultrie Flag was blue, as were the uniforms of the men of the garrison, and it bore a white crescent in the upper corner next to the staff, like the silver crescents the men wore on their caps, inscribed with the words “Liberty or Death”.
The Maritime Colony of Rhode Island had its own Rhode Island Regiment Flag, which was carried at Brandywine, Trenton, and Yorktown. It bore an anchor, 13 stars, and the word “Hope.” Its white stars in a blue field are believed by many to have influenced the design of our national flag.
The Army preferred its regimental flags on the battlefield instead of the Stars and Stripes. A popular form of the U.S. flag that was used in battle had the obverse (front) of the Great Seal in the canton. The Army also used the Stars and Stripes with 13 stars in a circle. The Stars and Stripes was officially used in Army artillery units in 1834, and in infantry units in 1842.
Historical American Flags
South Carolinians defending Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor in 1776 raised one of the earliest flags of American liberty. The blue corresponded to their uniform, the silver crescent appeared as a badge worn on their caps. The cause for which they fought—liberty—was emblazoned on the crescent.
General John Stark of New Hampshire commanded a militia brigade known as the “Green Mountain Boys.” Tradition relates that its green flag was flown at the Battle of Bennington on August 16, 1777. As in many American flags, the stars here were arranged in an arbitrary fashion. Nevertheless they signified the unity of the Thirteen Colonies in their struggle for independence.
The State flags of America found their earliest forms during the Revolutionary War. The starry canton in the flag of the Rhode Island Regiment symbolized national unity, but the white field corresponded to the uniform of the State troops. The anchor symbol and motto which completed the design had been used for more than a century. The original flag may be found in the State House in Providence.
During the War of 1812 Captain James Lawrence of the Chesapeake encouraged his men, as he lay dying, by exhorting “Don’t Give Up the Ship”. Three months later at the Battle of Lake Erie, Commodore Perry emblazoned these words on a flag which carried him to victory. Similar flags and mottoes have inspired Americans throughout our two centuries of existence.
Originally believed to have been carried during the Revolution, this flag is now seen as having probably been made for the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1826. Its design is typical of the exuberant artistic expressions found in flags of the 19th century.
During the Civil War a special version of the United States flag-with swallowtail and stars of gold instead of white—was carried by the cavalry. General Custer and others used the flag in succeeding decades in the West.
The American Flag Today
The flag of the United States of America has 13 horizontal stripes—7 red and 6 white—the red and white stripes alternating, and a union which consists of white stars of 5 points on a blue field placed in the upper quarter next to the staff and extending to the lower edge of the fourth red stripe from the top. The number of stars equals the number of States in the Union. The proportions of the flag as prescribed by Executive Order of President Eisenhower on August 21, 1959, are as follows:
Hoist (width) of flag. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.0
Fly (length) of flag . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.9
Hoist (width) of union. . . . . . . . . . . 0.5385
Fly (length) of union . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.76
Width of each stripe . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.769
Diameter of each star. . . . . . . . . . . . 0.0616
Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag
“I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE TO THE FLAG OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND TO THE REPUBLIC FOR WHICH IT STANDS, ONE NATION UNDER GOD, INDIVISIBLE, WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL.”
The Pledge of Allegiance received official recognition by Congress in an Act approved on June 22, 1942. However, the pledge was first published in 1892 in the Youth’s Companion magazine in Boston, Massachusetts to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America, and was first used in public schools to celebrate Columbus Day on October 12, 1892.
In its original version, the pledge read “my flag” instead of the “flag of the United States.” The change in the wording was adopted by the National Flag Conference in 1923. The rationale for the change was that it prevented ambiguity among foreign-born children and adults who might have the flag of their native land in mind when reciting the pledge.
The phrase “under God” was added to the pledge by a Congressional act approved on June 14, 1954. At that time, President Eisenhower said:
in this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons, which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”