History of Our American Flag

The museum has received a copy of STARS & STRIPES FOREVER, a new book by Richard H. Schneider, author of TAPS: Notes from a Nation’s Heart. The book was published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Photo of Eloise Lane

Eloise Lane

Barbara Levine was the jacket designer and the jacket illustration was created by Super Stock. In his new book Schneider tells the history, stories and memories of our American flag. The Viking banner – a black raven on a white background – was the first flag to touch the shores of our continent. This was around A, D, 1000 when a Viking long boat grounded on the banks of Newfoundland. In centuries that fol- lowed, other ships and flags, including those of Spain, France and England, were to come to the shores of America.

The British Union Jack, representing the union of England and Scotland, flew over Jamestown in 1607 and over Plymouth in 1620. For several decades the bright colors of the Union Jack brought comfort to the people who were settling the wild country of the New World. Around 1750 English colonists began to complain about the heavy hand of Mother England in regard to taxes, laws, regulations and denial of represen- tation.

On April 19, 1775, “the shot heard round the world” was fired and the Union Jack ceased to represent the people of America. One of the new banners showed a rattlesnake with its fangs bared and the defiant motto, “Don’t tread on me.” This banner was inspired by Benjamin Frank- lin’s design of a rattlesnake cut into nine pieces to represent the nine col- onies. The Flag of the Sons of Liberty was a rectangle featuring nine red and white vertical stripes. This was the first flag to feature red and white stripes.

The New England flag carried at the Battle of Bunker Hill was a red flag with a white canton bearing the image of a pine tree. (A “canton” is a rectangular portion of a flag, placed in the upper quadrant close to the staff – e.g. the field of blue with white stars in the American flag is a canton.) On New Year’s Day of 1776, the Continental Army was formally established with General George Washington in charge. The flag under which the new army fought was a modification of the British Red Ensign, a maritime flag that featured a red field with the Union Jack in the canton. The red field was changed to a field of thirteen red and white stripes – the colonies had grown in number from nine to thirteen.

This first symbol of the thirteen united colonies was called the Grand Union Flag. On July 4, 1776, the second Continental Congress formally signed the Declara- tion of Independence. The Journal of this Congress on June 14, 1777, contains a short thirty-two word passage with no explanation or comment: “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.”

This short simple statement describes the flag that repre- sents our country to the world and which we celebrate every June 14 as Flag Day, For many years the story has been told that Betsy Ross designed and made the first American national flag, but historians now believe that the story is untrue. It is known that Betsy Ross was a seamstress in Philadelphia and that, in May, 1777, she was asked to sew flags for the Pennsylvania Navy. Other people claimed to have designed the flag and we may never know who actually did design the flag of thirteen alternate red and white stripes with a circle of white stars in the blue canton.

But what really matters is that those who are truly responsible for our flag and what it stands for are those who risked life and liberty to bring our country into existence — those ser- vice men and women who fight for it in times of peril — and those who keep the bright and vibrant vision of our national anthem flying over the land of the free and the home of the brave. The enormous Stars and Stripes Banner that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814 and inspired the writing of our national anthem featured fifteen stripes because Kentucky and Vermont had joined the Union. At this point Congress enacted the Fag Law which stated that for every new state, another star and another stripe would be added to the flag.

One congressman protested, “If we continue adding a star and stripe every time a new state is admitted, the flag may have more stripes than a zebra and more stars than in the heavens.” On April 4, 1818, after five more states had been admitted to the Union, Con- gress passed a resolution authored by Congressman Peter H. Wendell and Captain Samuel Reid. Wendell had written, “Should that practice (adding a stripe as well as a star ) be followed, our flag would resemble nothing less than peppermint shirting.” Reid suggested that the number of stripes be kept to thirteen to repre- sent the thirteen original colonies.

The Flag Act of 1818 stated that on and after the next fourth of July, the flag should have thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white, and twenty stars, white in a blue field -~ and that on the admission of every new state, one star should be added, the admission to take effect on the next fourth of July. A few months later, President Monroe added a codicil to the Flag Act which stated that the twenty stars should appear in four equal and parallel rows of five each. This was the first time that the arrangement of the stars had been defined.

The Union had grown to encompass thirty-three states when seven states voted, in January of 1861, to secede from the Union, forming the Confederate States of America. Four additional states seceded, leaving the Union with thirty-three states. Many of President Lincoln’s advisors believed that he should remove eleven stars from the flag, but he announced in April that his mission as president was to preserve the Union at all costs. Four years later the fighting was over and the Union remained unbroken.

The Union not only retained the thirty-three states but over the next forty-seven years it would add fifteen more, bringing the total number of states to forty-eight. After New Mexico and Arizona joined the Union in 1912, it was necessary to change the arrangement of the stars. On June 24, 1912, President Taft issued an executive order establishing the specific sizes and proportions in which the flag could be made the order also provided for the arrangement of the stars in six horizontal rows of eight each, a single point of each star to be pointing directly up. In January of 1959, flag makers prepared to add a new star when Alaska became a state.

President Eisenhower directed that the field of stars include seven rows of seven stars each, staggered horizontally and vertically. In August of 1959, Hawaii joined the Union as our fiftieth state, and Eisen- hower directed that the new flag would feature nine rows of stars staggered hori- zontally and eleven stars staggered vertically. The American flag has been un- changed since 1959. Schneider has listed the fifty states in alphabetical order; the number of the state in the order it was admitted, the date of admission, the number of the flag design when it was admitted and the number of stars. The entry for’ Hawaii reads: Hawaii (50th state) August 21, 1959 (27th U. S. flag design/50 stars). (to be continued)

Over 200 Articles, written by Eloise Lane, were published in the Pampa News. These articles may be accessed by clicking on each section below. A list of articles will be revealed that are linked to a page containing the text of the article.

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