This post is a combination of four posts that we like to call “The American Flag Suite.” You can read each post individually by following these links: America’s First Flag, America’s First “Stars and Stripes”, The Myth and Legend of Betsy Ross, and Post Revolutionary War to Today.
America’s First Flag
If you ever get the chance to visit Philadelphia, you will most likely see buildings in the historic district flying American flags with a circle of 13 stars in the canton (the blue part in the upper left corner). Having grown up close to Philadelphia and visited the historic district on many elementary school trips, I assumed for a long time that this particular design was America’s first flag and that Betsy Ross made it (we’ll cover Betsy Ross in another post). While this particular design was eventually used, it was not America’s first flag.
Despite not officially declaring independence until July 4, 1776, war between Britain and the American colonies (then known as the United Colonies) had already begun more than a year before with the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. By the time the Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775, they were already functioning as a de facto war government and would approve the creation of a Continental Army and Navy in June and October, respectively.
By the end of 1775, the American forces realized they needed a flag that differentiated themselves from the English vessels and troops that were using the British ensign system and the Union flag. However, they had not officially declared independence and some people in the colonies were hoping for a resolution in which they remained under British rule. Therefore, their flag needed to still reflect loyalty to the English crown. The design that was settle upon is known as the Grand Union flag; still featuring Great Britain’s Union flag in the canton, but using a 13-stripe pattern to represent the 13 colonies and to differentiate itself from the solid red and white British ensigns.
It is not known who designed the Grand Union Flag or when they did, however we do know that it was first hoisted aboard the colonial warship USS Alfred on Dec. 3, 1775 while it was docked in Philadelphia. John Paul Jones, a U.S. naval legend who is regard by many as “The Father of the American Navy,” claims to have hoisted the flag himself (he had just been given the rank of Lieutenant).
This flag may look familiar to some vexillologists (people who study flags), and for good reason; it is extremely similar to the flag of the British East India Company (BEIC). Formed in 1600, the BEIC pursued trading in the Eastern Hemisphere (particularly the Indian subcontinent) and would become the most powerful company in the history of the world, at one point controlling half of the world’s trade and a quarter of its population. Starting in 1707, BEIC vessels flew a red and white striped flag with a British Union flag in the canton.
Because of the size and influence of the BEIC, it wouldn’t be farfetched to say that colonial Americans were influenced by the design. However, since we still do not know who designed the Grand Union flag, we cannot find any documentation confirming the influence. There are also a few other factors at play:
- The Grand Union flag would be very easy to create, especially for colonies that were short on many supplies, including dyes. One could be made by attaching strips of white cloth to a British red ensign from a merchant ship.
- There was no standardized number of stripes on BEIC flags. Examples have been found with as few as nine to as many as 15 stripes, with nine stripe variants being the most prevalent. So even if the Grand Union flag was inspired by the BEIC flag, it gives credibility to idea that the 13 stripes were purposefully created to represent the colonies.
There are two similar flag designs associated with the Sons of Liberty that can be traced back to the 1760s, prior to the Revolutionary War. One flag featured nine vertical red and white stripes while the other featured 13 horizontal red and white stripes. The 13-stripe variant was also very popular among Colonial American merchant ships. It would make sense that the Grand Union flag evolved from this popular merchant flag as the Continental Navy’s first vessels were former merchant ships that were armed.
The Grand Union flag would eventually be replaced on June 14, 1777, the day when the Flag Act of 1777 was passed. The act would institute the creation of the first variant of a stars and stripes flag. June 14 is celebrated in America as flag day.
America’s first “Stars and Stripes”
The first stars and stripes variant of the U.S. flag was approved on June 14 when the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution of 1777. However, this resolution wasn’t as big of a deal as it might have been today.
One reason is that the concept of a national flag was very new during the late 18th century, and those that did exist were ensigns, national flags used exclusively on sailing ships. It is likely that the stars and stripes design was intended to be an ensign, as the Flag Resolution of 1777 was created by the Continental Congress’ Marine Committee.
The other reason was that the resolution’s description of the flag was somewhat vague. The resolution states “That the flag of the thirteen 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 union refers to America’s first flag, The Grand Union flag, whose canton was the Union flag of Great Britain. But notice how the description doesn’t specify a shape for the “new constellation.” Nor does it specify the amount of points on the stars or the order of the red and white stripes (seven red stripes and six white stripe or seven white stripes and six red stripes). These ambiguities lead to a wide variety of early American Flags, including the stars being arranged into the shape of a star, a circle, and various combinations of rows.
Francis Hopkinson, a member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey, was most likely the creator of the first stars and stripes flag. Not only was he Chairman of the Continental Navy Board’s Middle Department (remember that the Marine Committee proposed the Flag Resolution of 1777), but he was the only person to claim that he or she designed the flag during his or her lifetime.
Though it is not exactly the same as Hopkinson’s original design, it still features many similar elements including seven white stripes and six red stripes, which were also featured in his design for a government version of the U.S. flag.
In fact, Hopkinson is said to have designed two flags, a naval flag and a U.S. government flag. The only difference between the two flags was the order of the stripes. The naval flag started with a red stripe and the government started with a white. Though there are no sketches of either design, there are sketches from his designs of the Great Seal of the United States and the Admiralty Board Seal. Both incorporate the same stripe pattern as their corresponding flag. Only the naval flag was used and would eventually transition to use as a national flag.
Hopkinson famously sent Congress a letter in 1780 asking for “a quarter cask of public wine” for his work on the “the United States Flag” and a variety of other things, including the great seal of the United States. He would send further letters demanding a cash payment, but Congress deemed he had already received proper compensation during his time in Congress.
The myth and legend of Betsy Ross
There are certain facts and stories about historical figures that Americans have grown up with: George Washington cutting down his father’s cherry tree, Albert Einstein flunking math, Ben Franklin flying a kite during a thunderstorm. One that I heard a lot in my youth, especially having grown up in the Philadelphia region, was that Betsy Ross made the first American flag. That fact is pretty much history 101. Except, it isn’t. In fact, all of the stories mentioned either stretch the truth in a big way or are flat out lies that somehow have embedded themselves in the public consciousness as hard truths. Being that this is a flag website, guess which of these myths we are going to examine? (Hint: It’s Betsy Ross).
Before we dive into the inaccuracies, let’s review the “legendary” story of Betsy Ross.
In July 1776, Ross, a Philadelphia-based flag maker, was visited by a trio of American Founding Fathers: Colonel (at the time) George Washington, Robert Morris, and Ross’ great uncle George Ross. The delegation discussed the need for a national flag and asked Ross to sew the design that they presented her. Ross accepted the request after modifying the design by using five-pointed stars instead of the proposed six-pointed stars. According to the story, the delegation had wanted five-pointed stars but thought they would be too hard to mass produce. Ross was able to show them an easy way to make a five-pointed star. The completed design that is still attributed to Ross to this day featured 13 stars in a circle, all pointing outward from the center.
So that’s the story. Notice how in no way does it claim that she designed the first flag, it only claims that she sewed it and contributed the five-pointed star modification. (We’re referring to the first Stars and Stripes variant in this instance. We already know that America’s first flag was the Grand Union flag.) How the legend has evolved to say that Ross did design the first flag is only a testament to how an oral story can evolve through time. So now that we are aware of the story, let’s examine some of its murky details.
First and foremost, this story did not come directly from any of the people involved. It was first published in an 1870 paper by Ross’ great-grandson William J. Canby, 34 years after Ross’ death and nearly a century after the events of the story supposedly took place. Canby claims he got the information in 1857 from his aunt Clarissa Sydney, still more than 20 years after Ross’ death.
The timing of Canby’s paper was also convenient. Smithsonian researchers traced the spread of the lore around Ross to 1876, when the American public was looking for any patriotic stories from the Revolutionary War to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the country’s independence.
The eager public almost immediately latched on to the story of a female role model from the founding of the nation. However, this patriotic fervor allowed a lot of inaccuracies and questionable details to slip through. First and foremost, we know that national flags weren’t really a widespread concept during the late 18th century and any flags representing a nation were used almost exclusively on boats. Second, yet equally as damning, was that there were no congressional records indicating anything about a national flag in 1776 or any mention of Ross or a national flag in the personal records of Washington, Morris, or Ross. The first mention of any flag was the congressional records on the Flag Resolution of 1777, nearly a year after the colonies declared independence. This shows that there was no urgency in wanting or needing a national flag.
Despite the overwhelming lack of evidence, there could be a few shreds of truth in the Ross legend. If she did make any Stars and Stripes flags, they may have been in the “Ross Flag” style that we know. However, this is unlikely, as the oldest known representation of that particular design was in a 1792 painting by John Trumbull. It is also important to remember that while Ross was a flag maker (she was technically an upholsterer, but many in the upholstery business did make flags at this time), she was hardly the only one in Philadelphia. Colonial port cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston had dozens of flag makers, each churning out various designs for the growing colonial fleet and for other ships whose flags had simply worn out. Since there was no official arrangement to the stars or stripes, each flag maker produced a unique product. This resulted in dozens of examples of Revolutionary American flags, including Hopkinson’s Flag.
It is also possible the Ross may have been the first person to use the five-pointed star, a staple of American flags today. However, the influence of Ross’ potential design would not truly take effect until well after the war, as examples of pre-19th century flags can be found with anywhere from five-pointed stars to eight-pointed stars.
So what is the true story of Betsy Ross? It seems that we may never know. But we can say with a high degree of certainty that she did not design or sew the first Stars and Stripes.
Post Revolutionary War to today
While the American flag’s foundation was laid during the American Revolutionary War, the country’s growth, vague laws, and new precedents allowed the flag to evolve along with the country.
During the American Revolutionary War, the American Flag’s symbolism translated well to an attractive flag design. Thirteen states were represented by 13 stars and 13 stripes. But things became complicated by the additions of Vermont and Kentucky in 1791 and 1792, respectively. The question became “Do we add the new states to the flag or should the flag honor the original 13 colonies?” The flag would remain as the 13 stars and stripes variant for another two years until President George Washington signed the Flag Act of 1794. Not only did this act add two more stars to the flag but two more stripes as well, making it the only U.S. flag with more than 13 stripes. This is also the variant of the flag that flew over Fort McHenry and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner.
Even though Tennessee became a state two years after the Flag Act of 1794, it would be another 23 years before the flag would change again. In fact, five states would be added to the union (Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana, and Mississippi) before President James Monroe approved the Flag Act of 1818. This particular act set the most refined standards for the flag to date, stating that there would only be 13 stripes to honor the original colonies and that new states would be represented by a new star added on the July 4 following the state’s admission to the union.
This new standard meant that new U.S. flag designs were coming out almost every year for nearly a century to represent the new states added to the growing nation. However, there were still problems. Those of you who have read our post on the First Stars and Stripes and the myth of Betsy Ross know that the Flag Act of 1777 set no standards for the arrangement of the stars and stripes on the flag, leaving the design completely up to the flag maker. Surprisingly, this was still the case at the beginning of the 20th century. Stars on U.S. flag variants existed in various shapes, including circles, stars, and diamonds. You can even find some flags that have seven white stripes and six red stripes (instead of the traditional seven red and six white). This was finally changed in 1912 when President William Howard Taft signed an executive order declaring an official design for the newest flag representing 48 states: “six horizontal rows of eight each, a single point of each star to be upward.” Taft’s order also set the official ratio of the flag to 10:19, a somewhat unique national flag ratio shared only by Libya, Marshall Islands, and Micronesia.
The last two changes to the U.S. Flag were both approved in 1959 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The first Executive Order on January 3 standardized the design representing 49 states: seven rows of seven stars staggered horizontally and vertically. The last Executive Order on August 21 of that same year would create the current design representing 50 states: nine rows of stars staggered horizontally and eleven columns of stars staggered vertically. However, this design wouldn’t become official until July 4, 1960. The 50 star design is the longest running U.S. flag variant (55 years at the time of publishing).
If you’re a regular FunFlagFact.com reader, you’ve probably noticed one fact missing that we usually cover with most national flags – what do the colors mean? No significance was ever ascribed to the colors of the Grand Union flag or the flag created under the Flag Act of 1777, so we can’t say for certain what the original creators had in mind. However, we can infer a few possible reasons why red, white, and blue were chosen. One is that the Grand Union flag was made before the colonies had declared independence and was designed to show the colonies’ allegiance to Great Britain, whose colors are red, white, and blue. Another reason is the availability of fabrics. As we said in the Grand Union flag post, the flag could have been easily made by putting un-dyed strips of fabric on a British red ensign.
However, the colors are given meaning for the Great Seal of the United States.
“The colors of the pales (the vertical stripes) are those used in the flag of the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue, the color of the Chief (the broad band above the stripes) signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice.” – Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, 1782