On any given day across the United States, the American flag towers up and flies high on stadia, churches, homes, schools, public buildings and military bases or installations. But what do those stripes and stars on the American Flag actually mean? And how many of stars and stripes are currently on the flag? Find out about the historical progression of the American flag, from the days of the American Revolution to its current design.
Unofficial Union Flags Prior to the Declaration of Independence
The date was January 1, 1776, and the Patriots were approximately 6 months from declaring themselves independent from the British crown. The Patriot’s distinguished general, Gen. George Washington (First President of the United States and one of America’s Founding Fathers) instructed that a flag be raised over the liberty pole in Massachusetts. This was no ordinary flag. As a matter of fact, this flag would be regarded by historians as one of the first unofficial flags of the Union during the American Revolution. Back then it was simply called the Continental Colors or Grand Union Flag.
This unofficial flag had three main colors: red, white and blue. It composed of 13 stripes of alternating red and white lines. The Union Jack (British Union Flag) was placed in the far left corner of the flag. The Continental Army proudly rode and fought under this flag even before the Declaration of Independence. It was also not uncommon to find it flying high at naval bases and forts in their territories. Many sympathizers of the Union’s course patriotically carried it, or other variations, on them to war.
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Popular among those variations were the ones with the coiled-rattlesnake. For example, the flag that was used by the 1765 Sons of Liberty had 9 red and white stripes. And boldly on it was the coiled rattlesnake with the inscriptions “Don’t Tread on Me”. A similar version of this was carried by the Minutemen of Culpeper County, Virginia. This version, in addition to the coiled rattlesnake and the “Don’t Tread on Me” motto, had the words “Liberty or Death” on it. Virginia Patriot, Patrick Henry, is the person regarded to have coined the famous “Liberty or Death” phrase.
The first Congress-approved National Flag of the U.S.
On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress passed a resolution that gave birth to the first national flag of the Union. Similar to the one hoisted by Gen. Washington, this flag came with both the stripes and stars. The resolution that governed the first official flag read as:
Resolved, that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation.
Interestingly, the nature of how the Stars were to be designed or patterned was not in the resolution. This gave a the designers a leeway to come out with several variations of the star pattern. Quite a few politicians suggested different Star patterns. For example, Francis Hopkinson, a Philadelphia Congressman, opined that the Star pattern be in a ring format.
Also, it has been suggested that Betsy Ross was the person who came out with the stars and stripes design of the first official of the United States. However, there exist no concrete evidence or any sort of records in the history annals to fully substantiate Betsy’s claim.
In some cases, the stars on the flag were arranged in several matrices and rows. Most notable of them were the 4-5-4 and the 3-2-2-3 rows. What often stayed constant, regardless of stars’ pattern, was the number of stripes and their arrangement. The first ever use of this official American Stars and Stripped-flag came at the Battle of the Brandywine. It was ever-present on the military wear of the Union troops back then.
On May 1, 1795, Congress passed a second Flag Resolution that allowed for new stars and stripes to be added in recognition of additional new states to the Union. The U.S. flag briefly became a 15-red and white striped flag when Vermont and Kentucky were admitted into the Union in 1791 and 1792 respectively. Correspondingly, the number of stars increased from its original 13 to 15.
Why has the American Flag Changed Over the Years?
In 1818, 41 years after the first Flag Resolution, Congress enacted a third and final Flag Resolution that kept the number of stripes fixed at 13. This resolution came after 5 more states were admitted into the Union. Congress maintained the 13 stripes in honor of the 13 original colonies that founded the Union.
Also, it was decided that the number of stars be equal in number to the states in the Union. Having a fixed number of stripes made a whole lot of sense. This is because with every additional state admitted into the Union, the space on the flag would become too small if the stripes were increased. With regard to future additional states, the Continental Congress picked the 4th of July as the day that any new star be added to flag.
How does the Current design of the American Flag Look like?
Fast forward to 4th of July, 1959 (when Hawaii was admitted into the Union), the American Flag was about to see its 27th version or iteration. The last 25 of the changes were solely seen in regard to number of stars on the flag. Today, this 27th iteration of the national flag of the United States of America holds the record of the longest serving flag version. The officially recognized iteration in use, as at now, consists of 50 stars on a blue background and 13 stripes (7 red and 6 white).
Does the American flag have a Standardized template for its design?
Yes. In 1912, there was an executive order that standardized all future designs of the American flag. This executive order contains everything pertaining to the relative sizes and proportions of the stars, stripes, space and even intervals was specified. In 1934, the American flag got even more standardized with regard to the color shades on the flag.
What do the colors on the flag represent?
Unlike the stripes and the stars that have enough official symbolism and meaning, the colors on the American flag have no official meaning attached to them. The generally accepted meaning of the colors is the one from Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress. In 1776, Charles Thomson had this to say about the colors of the American flag:
How important is the American Flag?
Over the years, the American flag has been used to inspire altruism and patriotism among Americans. The rich history of the flag, as well as its evolution throughout two-and-a-half century, is the number one reason why the flag is of such an important element in the lives of all Americans.
It flies on masts of virtually every building and public place in the United States . It is truly a revered symbol of freedom and liberty. The flag has served as a means of conveying the magnanimous and brave efforts of people who have fought to preserve the ideals of equality and freedom. That is why soldiers, students and public officials all recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. Tradition also demands that the American flag be flown high on the mast whenever the national anthem is being sung.
Is desecration of the American Flag a Crime?
No. And it has been like that since 1990 because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling (on two occasions actually). The Justices on the bench ruled that prosecuting persons that burnt the U.S. flag was unconstitutional and abridged their rights of free speech. Desecrating of the American flag is just one example of a person’s symbolic expression protected by the First Amendment.
There have been attempts to criminalize flag desecration, but none have have been successful. Proponents of such laws argue that desecration of the flag is a betrayal to the country. They believe that it insulting to all the sacrifices that were made by past Americans in defending civil liberties and democracy. This is the same flag that school children recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of every school year. Soldiers and police officers die in service of what the flag stands for: freedom and justice.
The American public still remains divided on this topic. For now, Americans are free to do as they please with any American flag because their rights are fundamentally protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Of what significance do other old flags hold in America?
Ever since the Southern States (represented by the Confederate State of America) capitulated, the items and traditions associated with the Confederacy have slowly faded into obscurity. Similarly, the Confederate flag has been opposed by great section of the American public. The first Confederate flag flew as Stars and Bars on March 5, 1861. Just like the American flag, the flag went through about three modifications in the 5 year course of the American Civil War.
Today, the Confederate flag (also known as the Stainless Banner) brings about a lot of mixed reaction from the American public. Some section of the public hold the view that the flag symbolizes all that is evil in terms of slavery and racism.
Another section of the public feels that the Confederate flag is part and parcel of America’s history. They opine that instead of completely discarding it, it should be embraced in remembrance of the sacrifices that were made by the Confederate soldiers.
15 Interesting Facts about the American Flag
The American flag is undoubtedly the most recognizable flag in the world due to the ideals and values that it has stood for in the past and now. The flag oozes out freedom and bravery. It is also a symbol of national pride for all Americans. The 15 facts below perfectly summarize what the American flag stands for.
- The colors red, blue and white have not changed since when the flag came to being.
- In total, the flag has seen 27 different versions, the last being in 1959.
- The only time that the number of stripes changed on the flag occurred on May 1, 1795.
- American flag’s design and color shades were standardized in 1912 and 1934 respectively
- The current American flag version of 50 stars has lasted since 1959. This makes it the longest-serving iteration of any American flag.
- The colors red, blue and white bear close resemblance with the ones from the Union Jack of Great Britain.
- The two most commonest names of the American flag are the “Star-Spangled Banner” and “Old Glory”
- The U.S. has seen a total of 27 different versions of the American flag. The number of years that a version lasts is about 9 years.
- The nickname, “Old Glory”, used for the flag was coined by Captain William Driver in 1831.
- Any official new design to the American flag must come into effect on July 4.
- Every 14 June, the U.S. commemorates the birth of the American flag. Coincidentally, this day is the same as the 45th U.S. President’s birthday, Donald J. Trump.
- At some point in time, the American flag had 15 stripes. This was after Vermont and Kentucky joined the Union in the early 1790s.
- The current 50-stared flag was designed by a high school student by the name, Robert Heft.
- The official way to get rid of old and warn-out American flags is to burn them.
- There are currently no laws that criminalize the desecration of the American flag.