Tucked between Memorial Day and Independence Day, Flag Day is an overlooked and under recognized day of tribute. The day commemorates the date, June 14, 1777, when the Second Continental Congress formally adopted an official flag design for the fledging new nation. According to the Flag Act of 1777, “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.”
A year earlier, a little more than a month before the colonies declared independence, tradition tells us that George Washington along with Robert Morris and George Ross paid a visit to Ross’ niece-by-marriage, Betsy Ross, a Philadelphia seamstress who ran an upholstery shop. The men, serving as representatives of the Continental Congress, presented the recently widowed seamstress with a design for a new standard that was an adaptation of the British East India Company flag. In use since the early 1700s, the BEIC flag had, at various time, nine to fifteen alternating red and white stripes along with the British Union flag which was positioned in the upper left corner, the area known as the canton.
The sketch of the new flag replaced the Union Jack with a blue canton containing thirteen six-pointed stars. Looking at the drawing, Ross showed the gentlemen how a piece of fabric could be folded and cut, with just one scissor snip, to make a uniform five-pointed star. Impressed by her handiwork, they commissioned Ross to create the first American flag. Commonly called “the Betsy Ross Flag,” the new flag had thirteen red and white stripes—seven red and six white—and the thirteen stars arranged in a circle centered upon the blue canton.
One interesting version of this flag, the Easton Flag, placed the alternating red and white stripes within the canton and situated the circle of stars on a blue field as a center emblem. On display at the library in Easton, Pennsylvania, the flag is thought by some to be the actual one hoisted on July 8, 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was read aloud in Easton, a town located sixty miles north of Philadelphia.
Our national flag has gone through twenty-six official modifications over the past 235 years. Prior to declaring independence, the Continental Army was engaged in fighting the British in the siege of Boston on January 1, 1776 under a flag known as the Grand Union. Similar to the BEIC flag, this flag incorporated thirteen red and white stripes, representing the thirteen colonies, with the British Union flag—a design that combines the cross of St. George atop the cross of St. Andrew—in the canton. In the early days of what became the revolution, many colonists continued to see themselves as British and viewed the conflict as more of a civil war than one leading to independence. For these colonists, fighting under a flag which incorporated symbols of both the thirteen colonies and Britain did not seem incongruous.
However, as it became obvious that the colonies needed to “dissolve the political bands” which connected them to England and to “assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them” it was essential to adopt a flag to serve as a symbol of the new country.
An early version of the new flag placed the thirteen stars in a 3-2-3-2-3 pattern. With the addition of two additional states, Vermont and Kentucky, the Flag Act of 1794 modified the flag to include fifteen stripes and fifteen stars. This was the flag that came to be known as the “Star Spangled Banner” because it was the flag which Francis Scott Key was able to see flying over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812 while he was held prisoner on the British truce ship HMS Tonnant. The words to Key’s poem, Defense of Fort McHenry, became the lyrics of our national anthem.
The Fifteenth Congress passed the Flag Act of 1818 which returned the number of alternating red and white stripes to thirteen, and established that the number of stars would correspond to the number of states. This act also specified that the stripes would be horizontal and that new stars would be added to the flag on the fourth day of July after states were admitted to the Union. As new states were added, the patterning of the stars did not always prove to layout in even or symmetrical rows. The last official changes were in 1959 and 1960 when the forty-ninth and fiftieth stars were added for Alaska and Hawaii.
In 1906, songwriter George M. Cohan wrote You’re a Grand Old Flag after a chance encounter with a Civil War veteran who had fought in the Battle of Gettysburg. The veteran was holding a folded but ragged old flag. The veteran looked at Cohan and acknowledging his tattered bundle saying, “She’s a grand old rag.” Cohan thought the line was great and initially wrote and published “It’s a Grand Old Rag” for his show, George Washington, Jr. The song, however, received a great deal of criticism by people who thought it was inappropriate to call the American flag a rag, so Cohan revised the song and its title.
Both versions—rag and flag— were published as sheet music and both were recorded, but the version that has remained popular for more than a hundred years is the revised song, “You’re a grand old flag, You’re a high flyin’ flag, and forever in peace may you wave, You’re the emblem of the land I love. The home of the free and the brave. Ev’ry heart beats true ‘neath the Red, White and Blue, where there’s never a boast or brag. But should auld acquaintance be forgot, keep your eye on the grand old flag.”
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