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History of the US Flag

The history of the US flag is celebrated in American folklore.

Delaware was the first state to gain a star on the US flag. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Delaware was the first state to gain a star on the US flag.

History of US Flag

A symbol of hope and strength to some, a testament to independence and liberty to others, the history of the U.S. flag is a rich, integral part of the American story. Taking the time to understand the basics behind the U.S. flag, its history and symbolism is a must for all students of American history.

America's Flag

According to the Smithsonian Museum, on June 14, 1777, the newly formed American Congress passed a resolution (to become known as the flag resolution) that stated the U.S. flag would have 13 stripes and 13 stars to represent the new constellation that was the new nation of America. From 1777 to 1959, several more acts would be passed by Congress as new states were added to the Union and the arrangement of the stars had to be changed on the flag. Delaware gained the first star on the flag in 1787 and Hawaii the last in 1959. Today, a total of 50 stars and 13 stripes adorn the American flag.

The Act of Congress was only the official beginning of the flag. In fact, during the Revolutionary War, General George Washington had fought under the Grand Union flag at Boston in January of 1776. This flag consisted of 13 red and white stripes. Instead of the 13 stars representing the 13 colonies, the Grand Union flag had a miniature version of the British flag (the Union Jack) in the upper left corner. A woman named Betsy Ross created the first American flag (13 stripes and 13 stars), almost a year before the flag resolution, in May of 1776.

The Story of Betsy Ross

As explained by Pennsylvania State University, Betsy Ross is credited with the creation of the first American flag. Although historians cannot be certain of this fact; Ross's flag is the one of popular legend. Ross, born Elizabeth Griscom, learned how to sew in school and after marrying her husband, John Ross, opened up an upholstery store in Philadelphia. In 1775, John Ross was killed while serving in the state militia. Ross kept the upholstery store open.

It is said that George Washington approached Betsy Ross on the strength of her reputation as one of Philadelphias finest seamstresses. He had drawn up a sketch of a flag and commissioned her to create it. Ross allegedly altered Washington's design by taking his six pointed star design and turning it into a five pointed star design. She also took a square flag sketch and made it rectangular. The lack of additional evidence or witnesses to the story has not deterred the Betsy Ross flag being claimed as the first version of the stars and stripes.

Stars, Stripes and Symbolism

Many would think that the red, white and blue of the American flag is simply the rebellious version of the British Union Jack, which is also red, white and blue. In fact, according to the USA Flag Site, the colors were chosen to represent values America holds dear. Red is meant to represent valor, blue represents justice and perseverance and white represents innocence and purity.

The stars represent the 50 states of the Union. A new star was added on the 4th of July closest to a particular state entering the Union. The 13 stripes are a symbol of the 13 original colonies.

Old Glory

The name Old Glory is the unofficial nickname of the American flag. The story of the name is now part of the nation's history. The year was 1831 and Massachusetts sea captain, William Driver, had returned from one of his many adventurous voyages. This particular voyage had culminated in the famous rescue of the men who had rebelled on a ship called The Bounty. As he hit land, Captain Driver's friends presented him with a dazzling American flag for his ship's mast. Driver is said to have cried out Old Glory! as he watched the 24-star flag unfurl.

Driver's Old Glory flag stayed with him throughout his life, becoming well-known in his community. During the civil war, the Union Army captured Nashville and asked Driver if they could borrow his flag to hoist over the capital building to show the land belonged to America. Driver's patriotism is commemorated by the fact that the American flag is legally allowed to fly over Driver's grave in Nashville 24 hours a day.

Flag Etiquette

With such a rich history and symbolic meaning, the American flag has become an iconic symbol of the nation, and treating it with reverence and respect is both a matter of form and the rule of law on government property. June 14 is Flag Day, a day set aside to commemorate just how much the stars and stripes means to America. Some of the rules of the American flag include:

  • The flag cannot be used as a form of advertising
  • The flag should be dipped towards a person or object when being carried
  • The flag cannot be part of a costume or uniform outside of the emergency or military services
  • The flag must not be used to carry anything
  • The flag should not touch the ground
  • The flag should be folded in a particular manner in accordance with the flag folding ceremony (The flag folding ceremony is most often used at the funerals of Americas veterans. The correctly folded flag is presented to the widow or widower of the fallen soldier)

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