The American Flag
Where Did Our Flag Come From?
We all know that American flag has 50 stars for the 50 states and 13 stripes for the original colonies. But there is far more to story of the history and design of our flag. For instance, have you ever noticed that the American flag has fifty FIVE-pointed stars? Have you ever wondered why?
Why do we celebrate Flag Day on June 14? Since the beginning of our nation, the American flag has symbolized so much to so many: the longing for freedom of countless immigrants, the sacrifice of heroes who “poured out their last full measure of strength” on behalf of others so that we might breathe free, a representation of the freest nation on earth with a system of government that provides for a peaceful transition of power because ballots have taken the place of bullets.
The flag is a display of the American Spirit. It reminds us of the liberty we share as a part of an extraordinary story of a nation that has fought to be free. Our country has liberated others, and has even established free societies in the rebuilding of our enemies who we vanquished having freed others who’d been enslaved.
So it is important to understand the thought and care that went into the design and making of the American Flag. As with much of American history, God and His Providence were at work!
The American flag as we know was born in 1777 when the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia declared:
“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.”
Why did they choose this design? These colors? There is far more to know about the history of the American flag to appreciate its meaning!
The First Flag
An Appeal to Heaven
The first flag that officially flew over our American Warships in the Revolutionary era was a white flag with a tree, that had the words above and below, “An Appeal to Heaven” and “Liberty Tree.” The appeal to heaven was an idea that came from the English political philosopher, John Locke. He declared that when all courses for pursuing the end of political injustice had been exhausted, all that was left for people to do was to appeal to the God of heaven, and be prepared to take up arms in their just cause. This was well understood by several of our Founders. In the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, Samuel Adams presented a resolution on August 3, 1770. In it he declared,
We contend, that the People & their Representatives have a Right to withstand the abusive Exercise of a . . .Prerogative of the Crown. We beg Leave to recite to your Honor what the Great Mr. Locke (1632-1704) has advanced in his Treatise of Civil Government. . . . “should either the Executive or Legislative when they have got the power in their hands, design or go about to enslave or destroy them. . .The People have no other remedy. . .where they have no Judge on Earth, but to appeal to Heaven. For the Rulers, in such Attempts, exercising a Power the People never put into their Hands (who can never be supposed to consent that any Body should rule over them for their Harm) do that which they have no a Right to do. And when the Body of the People or any single Man is deprived of their Right, or under the Exercise of a Power without Right, and have no Appeal on Earth, then they have a Liberty to appeal to Heaven whenever they judge the cause of sufficient moment. . . they have by a Law antecedent & paramount to all positive Laws of Men, reserved that ultimate Determination to themselves which belongs to all Mankind where there lies no Appeal on Earth viz to judge whether they have just Cause to make their Appeal to Heaven.”
This sense of finality in the pursuit of justice in the face of tyranny spoken of here by Samuel Adams is explicit in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration makes an “appeal to Heaven” when it says, “appealing to the supreme judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions” and “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
The Liberty Tree
The Liberty Tree was a large old historic tree in Boston where the Sons of Liberty first met to protest the injustices of the Stamp Act. It also served as a remarkable billboard for protests or for hanging unpopular political figures in effigy. The tree was one of several that had been planted earlier when the first settlers had arrived in New England and established Boston. So the tree was not only old, but it was the fruit of the pioneer settlers’ labor.
Whenever there was to be a meeting of the Sons of Liberty, they would fly a flag above the tree on a pole as a call for people to attend. The very first flag was red. This red flag had a connection with the English Red Ensign Flag that often was flown on British military ships. The Red Ensign had the two crosses of the British flag in its canton in the upper left corner. But the New Englanders were never comfortable with the British crosses. As a result, they either replaced the two British crosses with a globe representing the new world, or a tree representing the forests of New England.
The pole was known as a Liberty Pole, dating back to the classical era when, in a Roman army battle, a conquering general raised up a liberty pole with a liberty cap on top of it, calling the slaves to stand with him. If they did, they would receive their freedom. (Click here for more about liberty poles)
The First Stripes Appear
When George Washington hoisted his first land flag at Lexington in 1775 upon assuming command of the American forces, it was an English Red Ensign, though white stripes had been sown on it so that 13 alternating red and white stripes appeared. This is called the Grand Continental Flag. A flag nearly identical to this had actually existed earlier on board some British merchant marine ships belonging to the East India Tea Company. We don’t know for sure if the Americans were conscious of the similarity, but we do know that the British initially mistook this British looking flag as a signal for surrender. But they quickly discovered that they were mistaken, since the patriots’ resolve to stand their ground became readily apparent. This confusion undoubtedly helped the Americans to recognize the need for further improvements to their flag.
Why The Stripes Appear
Why then were there stripes? Some say it was just an easy way to make a new flag. Others have a better explanation. The Sons of Liberty had along the way turned their red flag on the Liberty Tree into a nine vertical red and white-striped flag.
Why? Each stripe represented the nine colonial divisions of America (New England, New York, Pennsylvania (Delaware was included in Pennsylvania, since it had originally been part of Pennsylvania), New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia) and each vertical stripe represented a Liberty Tree or a Liberty Pole of protest that had been dedicated or raised by those same colonies. Hence, the Liberty Tree in Boston had spread across the land, and had now become an all-American symbol of the cause of Liberty.
So another explanation for the stripes is that the new flag took the nine vertical Liberty Tree stripes of the Sons of Liberty flag, increased them to 13 for each individual state, and turned them on their side. To this day, the flag of the U. S. Coast Guard still has the 13 red and white vertical stripes, when it flies atop an American Coast Guard ship. And while we all know the stripes are to fly horizontally, we are permitted to fly the stripes in a vertical manner, when they hang from a wall. In that case, the canton of stars in the field of blue is to be in the upper left-hand corner of the flag.
Significantly, when in England’s harbors American ships were seen sailing with flags that had only 13 stripes of red and white, such flags were called “the rebellious stripes.” These 13 Liberty Tree stripes were eventually coupled with the 13 stars that represented “a new constellation” in the heavens. The number 13 never varied, but the arrangement of the “constellation” of 13 stars did.
Other factors of the time may have prompted the use of horizontal stripes, but whatever caused the vertical stripes of the Sons of Liberty to be turned on their side, it is clear that they represent our founding 13 colonies turned states.
Throughout military history, flags have been important to identity the various divisions of the army for both times of battle and for organization in general. And so like other regiments of the army, General Washington had created a flag as a symbol of his Headquarters. His flag was a blue field with 13 stars, and each star was six-pointed. As the hostilities of the American Revolution began, the new army realized it needed to put a new consistent American flag on its ships too. In fact, it was the Marine Committee, the group in the Continental Congress that oversaw the newly formed American fleet of military ships, that brought the request for the new flag that was adopted by the Congress on June 14, 1777. There is an extant letter from Francis Hopkinson, a Philadelphia signer of the Declaration of Independence, that indicates that he was the original designer of a proposed flag for the new United States with stars and stripes.
The Role of Betsy Ross
In this context, the traditional story of our five-pointed star occurs. The details of the story come to us as it was told by Betsy Ross’ grandson, who claimed to have heard it from Betsy Ross herself. Betsy told her grandson that General Washington, Colonel George Ross and Robert Morris all came to visit her Philadelphia seamstress shop in May or June of 1777. Betsy Ross knew these men since all four of them worshiped at Christ Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. In fact, pew #12, where Betsy sat, was right next to the pew where General and Mrs. Washington sat when they were in town. Only a large column separated them from sitting immediately next to each other. A further reason would have made a military man like General Washington take notice of Betsy. She was a recent widow. In fact, her husband had died only four or five months before from complications received from an explosion that had occurred as he served as a volunteer guarding military stores.
The significance of these three specific men is well explained by Robert Morris,
One day a knock on the door of her shop signaled the arrival of three distinguished gentlemen; General George Washington, Colonel George Ross and Robert Morris. Ross had been an uncle of Betsy’s late husband, John, and was well known to Washington, hence it was natural that he would be there. Colonel Ross had been a delegate to the Continental Congress from Lancaster, Pennsylvania and presently served on various committees. He also served on the Council of Safety of Pennsylvania, was about to begin another term as a delegate to Congress and would become a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Robert Morris had extensive shipping and financial interests, was vitally interested in flags for proper identification of his ships at sea, had served as a delegate and would also become a signer, as well as the financier of the Revolution. Betsy had done needlework for the Washingtons, and since the pew where she and John worshiped at Christ Church was adjacent to the one the Washingtons used when in Philadelphia there must have been at least brief conversations with Betsy; doubtless she was known to them. It is not surprising then, that these particular men had planned to ask the patriotic young widow Ross to make a flag from the rough sketch which Washington showed her when they became seated at her shop.
According to Betsy’s grandson, the men came with a sketch of a new flag that had 13 stars and stripes. General Washington had planned for this new American flag to have its 13 stars composed of six-pointed stars, the kind that were on his Headquarters flag. They asked her if she would make such a flag, and she said she would try. But in looking at the sketch, she had a thought she decided to share with her three illustrious visitors. Betsy told General Washington that it was easier to make a five-pointed star rather than a six pointed star. In fact, she knew how to make a five-pointed star with only one snip of her scissors! That would certainly save a lot of time considering that each flag would have 13 stars, and there would have to be enough flags for all of the American ships on the sea. General Washington and his associates agreed with Betsy, and ever since, America has had five pointed stars. (If you would like to learn how to fold a paper to make a “Betsy Ross” five-pointed star with one snip of your scissors, click here.)
Red, White and Blue
Our three national colors of red, white and blue have an identifiable meaning. Although the motion passed by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777 does not explain the meaning of the three selected colors of our Flag, we can establish their meaning with certainty.
The Art of Heraldry
The colors were developed in the context of a well-known art form called heraldry. Heraldry was the art of creating symbols that carried meanings that others could recognize whether in a battle, onboard a ship, in a courtroom, or on a symbolic shield of a family’s coat of arms. We know that our Continental Congress was familiar with heraldry, because they used all of the technical terms of heraldry in their motion to establish the Great Seal of the United States, in 1782, five years after the flag was created.
When the Great Seal was created, they specifically defined the meanings of their selected colors. These meanings are the very same that the historic books on heraldry presented for them. This is especially significant since from among all of the virtues and values they could have selected, our Founding Fathers chose these:
Red—hardiness and valor;
White—purity and innocence;
Blue—vigilance, perseverance, and justice.
In further support of the continuity between the Flag and the Great Seal, our Founders placed these three colors on a shield that looks very similar to the blue field and red and white stripes that are on our American flag. The only difference is that the stars on the Great Seal are not on the shield, but above the Eagle’s head in the Heavens. Could it be possible that the selection of colors for our flag only five years earlier had no meaning in light of this?
The Expanding Nation Needs a Changing Flag
As the newly independent nation began to grow and additional states were added to the American union, their relationship to the flag was not immediately recognized. Eventually, the plan was to add one star for each state. This was not done immediately, and some states were added before additional stars were added to the American flag. By the time the new state of Ohio was added, four states including Ohio had been added to the union. To this day, the Ohio state flag carries 17 stars, with four of the stars set aside to symbolically remember the states that had been overlooked before the convention of adding one star per state was enacted. Also, the plan had been to add one stripe for each state as well. President George Washington and Vice-President John Adams signed the following law creating a 15 star and 15 stripe flag on January 13, 1794:
Be it resolved, That, from and after the first day of May, 1795, the flag of the United States be fifteen stripes, alternate red and white; and that the Union be fifteen stars, white, in a blue field.
The problem with adding additional stripes for each state along with an additional star began to become apparent. The United States began to have too many states to keep the distinctive color, design and meaning of the Flag clear. On the high seas, where identifying a ship by flag was very important to determine if a friendly or dangerous ship was at hand, the confusion caused by a potentially unclear Flag became impossible to permit. Thus the decision was made to keep the stripes at thirteen for the original states, and to only add a star for each new state. Thus in 1816 Representative Peter Wendover of New York proposed a measure in Congress under the slogan “A star for every state and a state for every star”. Congress adjourned without the Senate taking action, but the measure was reintroduced in the next Congress and was passed by both Houses and was approved April 4, 1818, stating:
An Act to Establish the Flag of the United States
Section 1. Be it enacted, etc., That from and after the fourth day of July next, the flag of the United States be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white; that the Union have twenty stars, white in a blue field.
Section 2. And be it further enacted, That on the admission of every state into the Union, one star be added to the Union of the flag; and that such addition shall take effect on the fourth of July next succeeding admission.
When we put all that we have learned together, a most remarkable testimony to our nation’s historic belief in the Judeo-Christian tradition is discovered.
Our Flag calls us to a moral character marked by heartiness and valor (red), purity and innocence (white), perseverance, vigilance and justice (blue).
Its stripes remind us of the courage of our Founding Patriots who refused to be silent in regard to their just claims to liberty and so at the Boston Liberty Tree. In essence they lived out the verse that is on our Liberty Bell, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof.” (Lev. 25:10)
The stars called on us to continue to appeal to Heaven for our hope of justice in the pursuit of liberty, regardless of the state in which we live.
As we stand around the flagpole, we need to remember that it is a liberty pole that declares that when we stand for these historic American values, we are freed from slavery to be free men.
What Does Our Flag Mean to Us Today?
It has been said that Eternal Vigilance is the price of liberty. But sometimes much more than vigilance is required to preserve liberty. Patrick Henry reminded his fellow Virginians before the start of the American Revolution, that sometimes liberty requires our very lives. He declared, “Is life so dear, and peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
Speaking of the U.S. Marines who took Iwo Jima in World War II, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz said, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.” But we must ask ourselves, whether valor is even a virtue today among common Americans. Has America broken faith with those who have died for our liberty? The danger of this was known years before by our nation’s Founders.
President Thomas Jefferson said, “Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty”.
The great sage of our Founders, Benjamin Franklin, put it this way, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety”.
As our Star Spangled Banner continues to wave over our nation that has been the land of the free and the home of the brave, let us never forget John Adams words to his wife Abigail Adams, on July 17, 1775, “Liberty, once lost, is lost forever.”
May Old Glory remind us to “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” For Benjamin Franklin speaks for every true American’s heart, when he declares, “Where liberty dwells, there is my country.”
That country is still the land “the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” But as we say those words, we must also ask Francis Scott Key’s question found in our National Anthem, in our own historical context. Key asked “O say does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” When Key wrote that question, it was about the flag. Today, his question for us is about whether we are still the land of the free. “O say does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” The level of your commitment to liberty will determine the answer to his question.