A NEW CONSTELLATION
 


 
THE NATIONAL FLAG OF THE UNITED STATES
FROM 1776 TO THE PRESENT DAY
 

Since 1777, when the Continental Congress passed a resolution establishing a national flag for the United States of America, there have been 27 versions of the Stars and Stripes. If the Revolutionary-era flag known as the Continental Colors is included, the US has had a total of 28 national flags since Independence Day 1776.

Though the current 50-star flag is used for all official purposes, past versions of the Stars and Stripes have never been unauthorized. Thus they may be flown or displayed and are entitled to the same respect shown the current flag. When past versions are flown, displayed or paraded with the current flag, the latter is given precedence. The historical versions most often seen nowadays are the 13-star Betsy Ross flag and the 15-star, 15-stripe Star-Spangled Banner.

The original flag resolution did not specify color shades, proportions or design details. Over the years legislation and military regulations have established certain standards, but these are not binding on the public. For example, though the flag's proportions are usually given as 10:19, commercially produced versions may be 2:3 or 3:5. On the other hand, most commercially produced flags now follow the star pattern of the government and military flags—in sharp contrast to earlier times when imaginative arrangements were common.

 Note on the Music: "The Stars and Stripes Forever," composed in 1896 by John Philip Sousa, is the official National March of the United States of America. The 32-bar grandioso of the piece, heard here, when preceded by four ruffles and flourishes, is used to render musical honors to senior government officials such as cabinet officers, members of Congress, state governors, etc.
 



 

REVOLUTION & INDEPENDENCE

 

Taunton Flag  •  1774

 

Sons of Liberty

 

The Continental Colors  •  First US National Flag  •  1776-77

In the years immediately prior to the outbreak of the Revolution most colonial flags, official and unofficial, were variants of British flags and ensigns. Undoubtedly the most familiar was the Red Ensign, nicknamed the Meteor Flag. As the quarrel between Britain and its American colonies intensified, a common form of protest was the raising of a flag over some public space, typically the village common. This happened in Taunton, Massachusetts on October 21, 1774, and the flag raised was a Red Ensign with the inscription LIBERTY AND UNION in the lower half. (Whether the Taunton Flag looked exactly as depicted above is doubtful, since all we have is a contemporary newspaper description of the design.) Another flag of protest was that of the Sons of Liberty: thirteen strips, red and white, symbolizing the unity of the Thirteen Colonies in the defense of their liberties. It has been suggested that the field of stripes was inspired by the ensigns of the British East India Company. No documentary evidence exists to prove that this was so, though certainly the ships and flags of the Company were a familiar sight in American waters.

The first, albeit unofficial, national flag of the United States was the Continental Colors, also known as the Grand Union Flag. Combining the field of stripes with the British Union Flag, it symbolized the colonies’ continuing loyalty to the Crown while proclaiming their unity in defense of their liberties. This flag was hoisted as an ensign aboard the Alfred, a warship of the Continental Navy that was commissioned at Philadelphia on 2 December, 1775. (Her captain was Lieutenant John Paul Jones.) The story that it was raised on New Year’s Day, 1776, over Prospect Hill near General George Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is generally accepted but disputed by some historians. There is no doubt, however, that the Continental Colors were widely employed by the Continental Army as a garrison flag and by the Continental Navy as an ensign, and that it thus became, in fact if not in law, the first national flag of the United States of America following the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July, 1776.

 

 

A New Constellation  •  1777-97  •  13 Stars & 13 Stripes


John Shaw's Design  •  1783

With the Declaration of Independence, the new nation clearly required a flag of its own. Accordingly, on 14 June 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution adopting a national flag for the United States of America: “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.” The thirteen stripes were brought forward from the Continental Colors and various claims have been advanced concerning the blue “union” with its white stars. Betsy Ross of Philadelphia is often given credit for sewing the very first Stars & Stripes, but this claim is based on little more than Ross family tradition. Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey, claimed credit for the design and likely did play a role in the creation of the Stars & Stripes.

The Flag Resolution did not specify the new flag’s proportions, color shades or the arrangement of the stars and the stripes. The Betsy Ross design, with seven red stripes, six white stripes and the stars arranged in a circle, undoubtedly did exist, but the were countless variations on the basic theme. Flags with the stars arranged in rows, 3-2-3-2-3, were common, as were flags with seven- or eight-pointed stars. Seven red and six white stripes were usual, but several well-known flags of the period, such as the Shaw flags produced for the sitting of Congress in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1781, had seven white and six red stripes. (See here for some additional Revolutionary-era variants of the Stars & Stripes.)

 

THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER

 

1797-1818  •  15 Stars & Fifteen Stripes

In 1797 two stars and two stripes were added to the flag to mark the admission to the Union of the states of Kentucky and Vermont. Thus was created the original Star-Spangled Banner: the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to compose the poem that became the lyrics of the US national anthem. The War of 1812 had been raging for two years when a British naval squadron carrying 5,000 troops arrived off Baltimore, Maryland, with the intention of capturing the city. Early on the evening of September 13, the British warships opened a bombardment of Fort McHenry, which guarded the approach to Baltimore Harbor. Key, a Washington lawyer who had come to Baltimore to negotiate the release of a civilian prisoner of war, watched the bombardment from a nearby truce ship. From time to time during the night the bursting of mortar bombs and rockets enabled him to catch a glimpse of the fort’s large garrison flag. As dawn broke on September 14, Key saw that “our flag was still there,” indicating that Fort McHenry remained in American hands. That very morning Key began to compose his poem, which he titled “Defense of Ft. McHenry.” Later in the month the poem was struck off as a handbill with an introduction explaining how it had come to be written and a note advising that it was to be sung to the tune of a popular English air, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Soon retitled “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Key's song became popular throughout the United States, though it was not made the official US national anthem until 1931. (See here for words and music.) The actual flag that inspired Key survived and is on display in the Smithsonian Institution.

Though five more states were admitted to the Union between 1797 and 1817, the impracticality of adding a stripe for each one prevented the flag from being updated to reflect the nation's continuing growth.

 

THE ERA OF MANIFEST DESTINY

 

1818-19  •  20 Stars

In 1818 an Act of Congress resolved the problem of the stripes, specifying that the number of stars in the union of the flag would correspond to the current number of states, while the stripes would be reduced to thirteen, commemorating the original thirteen states. The Act also specified that upon the admission of a new state to the union, a star would be added to the flag on the following Fourth of July.

 

Great Star Flag  •  1820-22  •  23 Stars

 

1846-47  •  28 Stars

 

1859-61  •  33 Stars

President Thomas Jefferson's purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803 virtually doubled the size of the United States. Florida was acquired from Spain in 1819, the Oregon Territory was purchased from Britain in 1846 and the Mexican War (1846-48) added further vast territories, including California. Between 1818 and 1861, thirteen more states joined the Union and there were twelve successive versions of the flag. (In 1823 Alabama and Maine were admitted to the Union, taking the flag from 21 to 23 stars.)  The 28-star flag of 1846 marked the admission of Texas to the Union. There was still no overall law specifying the flag’s color shades, proportions or arrangement of stars, though Army and Navy regulations described standard patterns. Since 1818 naval regulations had specified ensigns in a range of standard dimensions with five-pointed stars arranged in rows, and seven red and six white stripes. But private flag makers remained free to follow their fancies. One popular nineteenth-century variant of the Stars & Stripes was the “great star” flag, with the stars in the union arranged in the shape of one large star. In 1859 a 33rd star was added for Oregon and this was the national flag of the United States at the beginning of the Civil War.

 

RALLY 'ROUND THE FLAG  •  THE CIVIL WAR

 

1861-63  •  34 Stars

 

Variant  •  1861-63  •  34 Stars

 

1863-65  •  35 Stars

 

1865-67  •  36 Stars

The Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter (Charleston, South Carolina) on 12 April 1861 heralded the outbreak of the Civil War. The succession of eleven states was not recognized by the federal government and no stars were removed from the flag. On the contrary, a 34th star was added for Kansas on the Fourth of July 1861. In 1863 a 35th star was added for West Virginia. The 33-, 34- and 35-star flags were all used during the Civil War by the federal and state governments, the Army and Navy, and private citizens. Finally, on the Fourth of July 1865 a 36th star was added for Nevada—little more than a month before President Andrew Johnson declared a formal end to the war.

 

FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA

 

1867-77  •  37 stars

 

1886-1908  •  45 Stars

 

1912-1959  •  48 Stars

 

Since 1960  •  50 Stars

The half-century following the end of the Civil War witnessed the admission of twelve states to the Union, taking the flag from 36 to 48 stars. The 37th star was added for Nebraska in 1867, and this was the flag that few over the United States during the centennial year of American independence, 1876. By the time of the Spanish-American War the flag had 45 stars and in 1912 the admission of New Mexico and Arizona completed the pattern. The 48-star flag served America for 47 years, through two world wars and the first phase of the Cold War. In 1959 a 49th star was added for Alaska and the 50th for Hawaii in 1960.



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