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.
One variation that is popular today is called the Betsy Ross flag which features a circle arrangement of stars that is unique for five-pointed stars arranged that all face outward from the center instead of upward. We will be covering the myth and legend of Betsy Ross in another post, but for now all you need to know is that Ross did not design or sew the first American flag. While the flag design attributed to her name is popular today, it was probably never used in any official capacity for more than American Independence Day celebrations. The earliest record of this flag variant is in a 1792 painting by John Trumbull.
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.
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.