Flag of the United States

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FLAG OF THE UNITED STATES. The current form of the American flag, with its thirteen red and white stripes, blue field, and fifty white stars, has an evolutionary history. On 14 June 1777, the Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act, which reads, "Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation." The overall flag size, proportions, and arrangements of the stars and stripes were not fixed until President William Taft's administration in 1912. For one hundred and thirty-five years, the flag had no prescribed appearance, and many variations were designed and sewn.

There have been two other Flag Acts since, the first one in 1777, and three executive orders affecting the appearance of the flag. The Act of 13 January 1794 provided for fifteen stars and fifteen stripes after May 1795. The Act of 4 April 1818 provided for thirteen stripes with a star for each state, added to flag on the first July fourth after statehood signed by President James Monroe. President Taft, by Executive Order on 24 June 1912, designated proportions for the flag with six horizontal rows of eight stars each, with one point of each star pointing upward. President Dwight Eisenhower, by Executive Order on 3 January 1959, provided for an arrangement of stars in seven rows of seven stars each, staggered both horizontally and vertically. Again, on 21 August 1959, President Eisenhower signed an Executive Order that arranged the stars in rows of nine stars staggered horizontally and eleven rows of stars staggered vertically.

The basic design of the flag—one canton, or area similar to but smaller than a quandrant, and an open field—may be said to originate with the "red ensign," a British flag from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The red ensign is believed to be the first known example of a flag that borrowed the design of a canton and field from heraldic shields. The red ensign was red with a white canton crisscrossed by a red Cross of St. George. The Puritans adapted the red ensign for their own purposes by removing the cross, leaving a plain white canton and red field. Later, a small evergreen tree, representing the trees of New England, was added to the white canton. It is believed that the "Green Tree Flag" was flown at the battle Bunker Hill. Later, American patriots designed their own flags, and many varieties appeared that signified the leader in command of each regiment. With so many different flags, many of the designs became cluttered and complicated with too many symbols.

Another type of flag, the so-called liberty flag, became popular during pre-Revolutionary times. Typically these flags had white fields with various symbols or depictions and the word "liberty." The secret society, the "Sons of Liberty," had a flag with thirteen red and white stripes hanging either vertically or horizontally. This flag is thought to be the precursor of the field on the current American flag. The British labeled the flag "the rebellious stripes."

Early on, it was the symbol of stripes that mattered, not the number or their colors. Early flags show green and white stripes, for example, and the numbers varied from between nine to thirteen. The number nine was significant at the time. It came from issue 45 of "The North Britain" (23 April 1763), the pamphlet published by English civil-rights activist John Wilkes, which accused George III of falsehood. Wilkes's writing was second only to Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" in inciting action against England. The issue numbers four plus five (of "issue 45") created the nine that was grounded deeply in colonists' sensitivities and was instantly recognized as a symbol of rebellion.

It was Marquis de Lafayette who coined the phrase "stars and stripes" to describe the United States. The stripes always had precedence over the stars in American thinking and flag design. Historians no longer believe that the French flag influenced the American one, but that the tricolor choice of red, white, and blue influenced the French flag through Lafayette's impressions.

Interestingly, the star design also had to evolve to the current five-point style. The six-point style star is called the heraldic star, typically used on heraldic coats of arms. The five-point variety is called the molet, and was more typically found as knight's spurs during years of Christian chivalry. Historians differ on the reason why the molet star became the version used in the American flag. While they do not believe that Betsy Ross designed or sewed the first flag as legend has it, they do believe she sewed flags for the Navy and give some credence to reports of her preference for the five-star design for its relative ease of sewing. Another theory is that Ross took the star from Washington's coat of arms, which had somehow appropriated the molet design in contrast to the heraldic, and which was kept by later flag designers to honor the "father of the country."

Well-known American flags include the garrison pennant that flew over Fort McKinley in 1814 and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner." Another is the flag that Neil Armstrong planted in the moon's surface at the first human lunar landing in July 1969.

Flags continue to drape the coffins of veterans and to be folded ceremoniously out of respect when they are removed from places of honor or taken down from flagpoles. During times of national mourning, such as after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the flag is flown half-staff.

Recent debate has flared up again about the constitutionality of flag burning. Those who argue for an amendment banning the practice say that it is necessary to preserve the sanctity of the symbol of America. Opponents argue that flag burning is an act of free speech that is protected by the First Amendment.


Armed Forces History Collections. "Facts About the United States Flag." Available from http://www.si.edu/resource/faq/nmah//flag.htm.

Mastai, Boleslaw, and Marie-Louise D'Otrange Mastai. The Stars and the Stripes: The American Flag As Art and As History, from the Birth of the Republic to the Present. New York: Knopf, 1973.

Connie AnnKirk

See alsoFlag Day ; Independence ; Nationalism .