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The Oft-Changing U.S. Flag

The nations flag has undergone a lot of changes since the Revolutionary War.

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Flag Day is here. Aside from it being the birthday of former President Donald Trump, June 14 is the day Americans celebrate one of our nation’s most iconic symbols. The banner we have today has gone through many changes, with a long history of liberty and patriotism. While the Stars and Stripes, the first official national flag, was approved by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777, there were numerous versions – both before and after – that brought us to the flag we know today.

The Earliest American Flags

During the Revolutionary War, there were several banners representing the colonists who had yet to gain their independence from England. The first unofficial flag went by several names including Continental Colors, the Grand Union Flag, the Union Flag, the Cambridge Flag, and the Somerville Flag. It was hoisted on a 76-foot liberty pole at Prospect Hill in Charleston, Massachusetts – which is now known as Somerville – in 1776 at the behest of General George Washington. The design combined the thirteen stripes to represent the unity of the colonies and the British Union Jack.

Also during this time, the Continental Navy used a red and white striped banner with the warning “Don’t Tread on Me” inscribed on it. It had a coiled rattlesnake depicted on it along with patriot Patrick Henry’s famous words, “Liberty or Death.” And there were other red and white flags, such as the Sons of Liberty, being flown at various forts and battles.

Although some historians disagree, Washington reportedly commissioned Betsy Ross to sew and design the first official flag, which was presented to and approved by Congress.

Birth of the Star-Spangled Banner

Just before the War of 1812, two new states were added to the Union, bringing the total to 15. The flag was altered to make room for 15 stars and stripes. This was the only official version to have more than 13 stripes. While it flew over Fort McHenry during a British naval battle, Francis Scott Key became inspired to write what would become America’s national anthem: The Star-Spangled Banner.

In 1818, Congress decided that all flags from then on should always have 13 stripes to represent the original 13 colonies and the number of stars should match the number of states in the Union. Any new stars shall be added on July 4 after a new state has joined, and this system continues today. From 1777 to 1960 (after Hawaii was added in 1959), there were 27 versions of the flag. The exact shades of color were not established until 1934 and there is no official meaning or symbolism attributed to the red, white, and blue.

However, while discussing the proposed Great Seal of the United States, Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress, suggested:

“White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue … signifies vigilance [sic], perseverance [sic] & justice.”

Today, there are many places where the flag is flown 24-hours a day:

  • The White House
  • Fort McHenry National Monument
  • Customs ports of entry
  • Flag House Square
  • Marine Corps Memorial (remembrance of Iwo Jima) in Arlington, Virginia
  • On the town green in Lexington, Massachusetts
  • National Memorial Arch in Valley Forge State Park in Pennsylvania

National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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