This post is part of my irregular series on the study of flags known as vexillology. Today, as the 242nd anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it seems appropriate to study the history and symbolism of Old Glory.

History

Years before the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence and the colonists launched into an eight-year war against Britain, the individual colonies and patriots flew various protest flags $^{[1]}$, such as the Stamp Act Flag after the Stamp Act of 1765. Pine trees made an appearance in the flags of New England colonies.

The first national flag of America, called the Grand Union $^{[2]}$ and created in 1775, followed the same stripe pattern as the modern flag – alternating red and white strikes – with the British Union Jack in the upper left-hand corner instead of the blue background and white stars. George Washington, who legend says commissioned Philadelphia seamstress Rebecca Flower to make, had it flown on Prospect Hill near Cambridge, MA, on New Year’s Day 1776.

On June 14, 1777, a letter now published in Journals of the Continental Congress described the new flag $^{[3]}$ that would represent the new nation: “Resolved, 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 designer of the original Stars and Stripes is uncertain. According to popular legend, Betsy Ross $^{[4]}$, widowed after her husband died in a munitions explosion in 1776, sewed the first Stars and Stripes flag after General George Washington and other members of the Continental Congress showed her a design draft. (Washington was supposedly a good friend of Betsy.) Based on the facts, historians have concluded that the story, though warm and fuzzy, is apocryphal.

Another well-known story credits Congressman Francis Hopkinson – a signer of the Declaration of Independence – for the design. In a letter from May 1780 $^{[5]}$, he wrote, “It is with great pleasure that I understand that my last Device of a Seal for the Board of Admiralty has met with your Honours’ approbation. I have with great readiness upon several occasions exerted my small abilities in this way.According to Hopkinson, one of these occasions was the designing of the United States flag.

Regardless of who created the first stars and stripes, the Flag Resolution of 1777 established these design elements for all future American national flags.

Symbolism

Why red, white, and blue? For the flag itself, the colors were likely chosen because past flags of America – namely the Grand Union flag – sported them. A common but erroneous interpretation comes from Charles Thomson $^{[6]}$, Secretary of the Continental Congress, in a report:

“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.”

These symbolic meanings, in fact, referred to the Great Seal of the United States, and not the flag.

The meaning of the stars and stripes themselves is well-known. The thirteen stripes represent the thirteen original British colonies; the thirteen stars, the colonies coming together as a “new constellation” – their own country. As new states formed and joined the union, more stars found their way onto the flag. Today, the American flag has fifty stars for the fifty states that form this nation.

Other posts in “Flag Study”