What Is Flag Day? Celebrating the Stars and Stripes
The American Flag. The Stars and Stripes. Old Glory. It flies over sports stadiums and front lawns. On the walls of school classrooms and the awnings of storefronts. Small, velcro versions face forward on the shoulders of many men and women in uniform. Massive, salt-blown ones flutter from the fantails of colossal aircraft carriers. It is the standard of our nation, borne proudly aloft in war and in peace for nearly 250 years. It’s regularly flown as part of great national celebrations, but only one day a year is set aside to celebrate the very emblem itself: June 14th. Flag Day.
America’s Flag History
When most people think of the first American flag, they’re probably picturing the thirteen stripes of the present version with thirteen stars in the field of blue. While that is generally the one Flag Day commemorates, it was not the first official flag of the United States. That distinction belongs to the Grand Union Flag (also called the Continental Colors), which bore the familiar red and white stripes but had a square version of the British Union Jack (the pre-1801 version, for you hardcore trivia buffs) in place of the stars. It first flew in 1775, before the colonies declared independence and when most residents still thought of themselves as British.
But after the Declaration of Independence was ratified, and the colonists decided the endgame of the Revolution was separation from their mother country, a new flag was needed. So on June 14th, 1777 the Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act, which stated: “That the flag of the thirteen 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 first time such a flag flew was during the Siege of Fort Stanwix.
The soldiers sewed the stripes from strips of their white shirts and pieces of red petticoats donated by officers’ wives. The blue came entirely from the coat of Captain Abraham Swartwout.
Did Betsy Ross Design the Flag?
As for the origin of the design, there are several versions of the story. One of the least likely, you may be disappointed to learn, is that Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross came up with it. She certainly sewed flags for the Continental Navy during the war, though probably not the first one. Most historical evidence points to Francis Hopkinson, a New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration, as the designer of the very first flag befitting the Flag Act’s description. His initial design, contrary to what you may be picturing, had white stripes at the top and bottom rather than red. The stars were arranged in a grid rather than a ring and were likely six-pointed rather than five-pointed. In his bill, he asked for “a Quarter Cask of the Public Wine” as payment.
Hopkinson later designed a flag specifically for the Continental Navy that had the modern stripe configuration, but it was not the “official” design. In fact, there was no “official” design of the American Flag during the war or for the nation’s early years. The vague language of the 1777 Flag Act meant numerous interpretations of stars and stripes that could be sewn. Congress wouldn’t pass another act further specifying the design of the flag until 1795. And not only did it add two stars to honor the new states of Vermont and Kentucky, but two more stripes as well. It was this version that Francis Scott Key observed during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812 that inspired his poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” which would later be adapted into “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It wasn’t until April 4th, 1818 that Congress passed the Third (and, thus far, final) Flag Act which both permanently reduced the stripes to thirteen and stipulated that a new star be added for every new state added to the nation.
How Many Stars Does the American Flag Have?
Today, the American flag has 50 stars, one for each state in the Union. Of course, since the nation has not always had 50 states that hasn’t always been the case. As stated above, there were several decades where the flag had fifteen stars and stripes. It remained that way until 1818 when the stripes went back to thirteen. But, in the 23 years between then and the previous redesign, five states joined the union. So the number of stars immediately jumped up to 20.
Since then, the number of stars has steadily increased only when new states are added. Though the layout of the stars was not officially dictated for over a century, meaning that for some periods of time there were multiple recognized designs. The concept of a single, official design has only existed since 1912 when the addition of New Mexico and Arizona bumped the number of stars up to 48. The current design with 50 stars, started out as a high school project by a 17-year old Ohioan.
Did you know? Robert Heft got a B- for his American flag design in 1959, though his teacher bumped it up to an A when Congress adopted it. (Click to Tweet this)
History of Flag Day
The earliest known attempts to create a national day recognizing the American Flag date back to the late 19th century. The first such case on record occurred in 1861 when a Connecticut man proposed the anniversary of the first Flag Act as a day to celebrate the Union. In 1885 a Wisconsin school teacher named Bernard J. Cigrand (often called the Father of Flag Day) held what’s regarded as the first Flag Day at the high school where he taught.
Others tried to establish it as a national holiday over the following decades out of desires to celebrate the flag, the country, and, in one particularly weird case, to try and stop silk workers in New Jersey from unionizing. But Flag Day as it exists now began in 1916.
Image via Wikipedia
Who Initiated the Observance of Flag Day?
On May 30th, 1916 President Woodrow Wilson officially declared June 14th Flag Day. He did not make it a federal holiday (nor did Congress when they officially added it to the US Code in 1949), as such there are no dictated observances or ceremonies that go along with the occasion. The President is “requested” to issue a yearly proclamation, but that’s about it. But after decades of people like Cigrand calling for a day to recognize the importance of America’s national standard, it was certainly a meaningful moment when Wilson codified the importance of June 14th.
Why Do We Celebrate Flag Day?
As Title 36 of the United States Code, Subtitle I, Part A, CHAPTER 1, § 110 states, the overarching purpose of Flag Day is “to observe Flag Day as the anniversary of the adoption on June 14, 1777, by the Continental Congress of the Stars and Stripes as the official flag of the United States.” It’s a pretty dry summation, but that doesn’t detract from its accuracy. The adoption of our own, unique flag was one of the key symbolic steps America took to become its own nation. And it’s an occasion well worth celebrating.
US Army Birthday
Some of you reading this, particularly our Army soldiers and families, may recognize the date of Flag Day for a different reason. That’s because June 14th is also the Birthday of the United States Army. It was that day in 1775 when the Continental Congress began adopting colonial and regional militias into a single fighting force: the Continental Army. Thus, the US Army is two years older than the flag it fights under. And it makes the day doubly special for all our brave Soldiers who sport the “backward flag” on their cammie sleeves.
From that first simple description of stars and stripes to the current standard we salute today, the American Flag has gone through dozens of changes. And if the future includes the addition of further states to our union it will go through even more. But no matter what shape the cluster of stars in that field of Old Glory Blue, which is the exact color’s official name, it will remain the standard of our country. And one of the most preeminent symbols of the ideals that make America, as Mr. Key put it, “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”