For example, ask about the first American flag and most people will invoke the name of Betsy Ross, who has been credited with creating the iconic red, white and blue banner with 13 stars arranged in a circle. Not only has modern scholarship shown that Ross had almost nothing to do with that flag, the fact is that America’s first flag didn’t have any stars at all.
From the vague wording of the Flag Resolution 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,” – to the precise (but mostly voluntary) regulations defining today’s national standard, the designs of the American flag have been as varied and robust as the people and nation the flag has represented. In observation of America’s 235th birthday on Monday, here are some of the stories behind a few versions of that Grand Old Flag and her sisters.
The Grand Union
The distinction of America’s first official flag goes to the Grand Union, an amalgam of symbols intended to not only identify the banded-together-yet-independent colonies, but to recognize that not everyone in those colonies wanted to sever the relationship with England. The 13 stripes representing the original colonies are displayed, but in place of the now-familiar canton (the name for the blue star field) there’s a British Union Jack. An early example of the political compromises needed to form the United States, the design was meant to acknowledge the many colonials who wished to repair and maintain the relationship with England.
The Grand Union was adopted in 1775, and was first seen flying from the masts of the Colonial fleet on the Delaware River on Dec. 3. A young Navy lieutenant named John Paul Jones raised the newly designated colors aboard Captain Esek Hopkins’ flagship Alfred.
The Grand Union was the official flag of the 13 American colonies on July 4, 1776 when they declared independence, and on Sept. 9, 1776, when Congress adopted the name “United States.” For almost the entire first year of the American Revolution, the Grand Union Flag with its Union Jack represented the new country struggling for freedom from England.
Other flags began to emerge to identify the individual groups that made up the fledgling nation. One of the first was that of George Washington’s Cruisers, a squadron of schooners that the future first president outfitted at his own expense in 1775. The flag was a variation of the New England Pine Tree flag. The Sons of Liberty, a secretive group of patriot insurgents, met in Boston beneath a large pine that came to be known as The Liberty Tree, a symbol of American independence included on many flags.
Some also believe the Liberty Tree was included on the Washington Cruiser flag as another political compromise – a patriotic, New England icon intended to offset the Virginian Washington’s Southern roots. Another unifying device is the text “AN APPEAL TO HEAVEN,” a request for God’s support and acknowledgment that the British Army would be tough to beat, something everyone could agree on.
The Gadsden Flag (Gadsden Banner)
South Carolina’s Christopher Gadsden was one of the Sons of Patriots. When the English Parliament levied the Stamp Act on the colonies in 1765, Gadsden argued that taxation without representation violated the most basic laws of the English constitution and the natural rights of citizens, and he set out to make trouble over it.
When the British envoy sent to enforce the new law arrived from England, he tried to land in Charleston, but Gadsden and the Sons of Liberty would not let his ship anchor. The ship turned back through the mouth of the Charleston harbor to anchor near Fort Johnson.
The Sons of Liberty traveled to the fort, took it over, and aimed the British guns at the Stamp Act collector’s ship. Outmatched and outgunned, the tax collector set to sea, never to return.
Eight years later, Gadsden became a colonel in the Revolutionary Army and created his distinctive banner. According to www.gadsden.info/history.html, the significance of how the rattlesnake device could be interpreted was the subject of a December, 1775 letter in the Pennsylvania Journal from an author signed only as “American Guesser.”
The rattlesnake can be found “in no other quarter of the world besides America,” the letter offered, and its sharp eyes were “an emblem of vigilance.” More importantly, American Guesser wrote, “She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. … she never wounds ’till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.”
Many scholars now believe that American Guesser was Benjamin Franklin.
Gadsden’s flag became the personal standard of Esek Hopkins, the first commander-in-chief of the Navy. Today, the Gadsden Flag is once again often seen at political rallies and tax protests.
The Betsy Ross Flag
Upholsterers John and Betsy Ross lived in Philadelphia, and John was killed working for the patriot cause when an ammunition cask exploded. That much is true. The rest of her legend, however – not so much.
According to Ross family oral history, the widowed Betsy Ross met with George Washington and two congressmen at her upholstery business in the spring of 1776. The meeting was said to have resulted in the sewing of the first U.S. stars and stripes flag bearing the iconic circle of stars.
The “oral history,” however, was written by a family member nearly 100 years after the supposed events, and no such meeting was ever noted in the records of Washington or the congressmen.
It’s the position of the United States government that Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was responsible for the circular pattern of stars. He designed the flag while he was the Chairman of the Continental Navy Board’s Middle Department, sometime between his appointment to that position in November of 1776 and the Flag Resolution of June of 1777. This contradicts the idea that Betsy Ross could have sewn the flag in the spring of 1776.
Although she probably didn’t create the flag named after her, records show that Ross did make “ship’s colours” for the Pennsylvania Navy in 1777. She’s also widely credited with devising a simple, one-snip method of producing the five-pointed stars used in the American flag, which were unusual for flags of the period.
The Serapis Flag (John Paul Jones’ Flag)
After attacking a British convoy off the coast of Norway in 1779, the ship of U.S. Navy Captain John Paul Jones – the former lieutenant who first raised the Grand Union on the Alfred four years earlier – the Bonhomme Richard, began to slowly sink into the North Sea. The captain of the British warship Serapis demanded that Jones surrender, only to receive Jones’ immortal response, “I have not yet begun to fight.” Three hours later, the Serapis surrendered to Jones and became his new flagship.
He sailed his prize to a neutral Dutch port, where, because the ship flew no colors (Jones’ had gone down with the Bonhomme Richard), he was accused of being a pirate by the British, who demanded the ship be returned by Dutch authorities.
No one among Jones’ crews had yet seen the Stars and Stripes approved in 1777. In letters, however, Jones had read that “colors should be white, red, and blue alternately to thirteen” with a “blue field with thirteen stars.”
Apparently based upon this description, a recognizable ensign was quickly made to fly aboard the Serapis, and Dutch records were edited to include a sketch of the ensign to make it official. The Dutch could, therefore, recognize the flag and avoid the legal controversy of Jones’ captured ship. The Dutch records survive and provide the original sketch of the flag. Ironically, the Dutch acceptance of the misconstrued design as a national ensign marked the first time a foreign power recognized the United States as an independent entity.
The Bennington Flag
Another popular flag design whose story doesn’t pass historical muster is the Bennington Flag. The flag features the number “76,” 13 eight-pointed stars and an unusual white-first stripe layout. The story goes that it was carried at the 1777 Battle of Bennington, Vermont, during which 2,000 rebels surprised and decisively beat a 700-man British Army detachment searching for horses and supplies. The flag was said to have been passed down through the family of one of the battle’s veterans.
But modern examination of the original flag – which is preserved in the Bennington Museum – shows that it was woven using power looms invented in the 1820s, when the highly stylized font used for the numerals was also popular. It is now thought the flag was made to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the revolution, and acquired its battlefield legend as time blurred the facts with latter-day family histories.
The Star Spangled Banner (Old Glory)
In 1794, the first post-revolution change to the Stars and Stripes came with the admittance to the Union of Vermont and Kentucky. In addition to two more stars, the new design added two stripes, one for each new state. It became apparent that adding stripes for each new state would be a problem, however, and when five more states were admitted in 1818, the number of stripes was set permanently back at 13.
This flag’s greatest distinction goes beyond its unique design. It was the 15-star, 15-stripe flag that flew over Fort McHenry, which defended Baltimore Harbor against British warships during the War of 1812. The flag, originally 30x42 feet with stars two feet in diameter, still flew over the fort after 25 hours of bombardment, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write the poem “The Defence of Fort McHenry.” The poem would later be set to music, renamed The Star-Spangled Banner and become our national anthem.
Ravaged by time and souvenir collectors, the Star Spangled Banner is now eight feet shorter and bears only 14 stars. A $7 million, 10-year preservation effort was finished in 2008, and the flag is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
The 34-star Civil War flag
Laid out in the traditional pattern of stars in a horizontal pattern, the flag that flew over the Capitol during most of the Civil War is special for something that didn’t happen. Faced with pressure from Congress to remove the stars representing the 11 seceding states of the South, President Abraham Lincoln steadfastly refused. The states had not left the Union, he insisted; they were only in rebellion. It was an important distinction that helped keep foreign powers from coming to the aid of the South. All 34 stars remained.
The 50-star pattern
It’s probably fitting that, in a nation that proudly boasts that any child can become president, the 50-star flag in use today was designed by a teenager. Bob Heft, a 17-year-old high school student in Ohio, created the 50-star design for a high school history project in 1958. He received a “B-” but two years later his creation was chosen as the new national flag – and his teacher revised his grade to an “A.” Now in its 51st year, Heft’s design has been the national flag longer than any other.
Thank you to www.foundingfathers.info, Matthew Robinson of the Claremont Institute, www.gadsden.info/history.html, www.ushistory.org, www.betsyrosshouse.org, www.allflag.blogspot.com and www.usflag.org for information in this article.