Two hundred forty-six years ago, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia passed a resolution officially creating an American flag. Prior to this, the Continental Army was using a variety of colors and standards sporting coiled rattlesnakes, dismembered rattlesnakes, evergreen trees, crescent moons, stars, and a host of other devices.
In 1776, General George Washington adopted the Continental Colors, also known as the Grand Union Flag, bearing 13 alternating red and white stripes with the British Union flag in the upper canton. Considered the first national flag of the United States, it was still too “British” for some.
On June 14, 1777, exactly two years after Washington took command of the militia around Boston, Congress passed the following:
“Resolved. 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.”
There is no mention of how the stars are to be arranged; no guidance about how the colors of the stripes were to be formatted — seven red and six white, seven white and six red, or if the stripes were to be vertical or horizontal — only that there are to be 13 stripes in two alternating colors.
Flag makers often took great liberties within these guidelines. Several patterns for the stars emerged, with the two most common being the “Betsy Ross Flag” — with the stars arranged in a circle — or the stars being aligned in alternating rows of 3-2-3-2-3. Some flags had seven white and six red stripes; some even incorporated blue stripes into the pattern.
The flag’s unique design allowed for alterations over time as the new country began to expand across the continent. When Vermont and Kentucky were admitted to the Union in 1794, two more stars and two more stripes were added to the flag. This 15-star, 15-stripe version would become the famous “star-spangled banner” that Francis Scott Key wrote about at Fort McHenry. This pattern remained in use from 1794 to 1818, despite five more states being added during that time.
In 1818, Congress passed a second resolution limiting the number of stripes to 13, forever enshrining the original colonies. From that point on, only a single star would be added to the constellation for each new state admitted into the Union. Those stars would be officially added on Independence Day following the state’s admission.
Over the past two centuries, there have been 27 variations of the flag, with the longest serving variation being the current 50-star flag, having flown for 63 years (1960-2023). Nine variations were used for only a single year as states were added later, making these variations very rare. It was not until 1912 that the design of the flag was standardized, and the layout of the stars specified.
Today, it is a common sight to see the Stars and Stripes flying from businesses and homes. This wasn’t always the case. The flag used to be seen as a symbol of the government, and was flown only over government property, such as forts, post offices, court houses, naval vessels, and schools.
That changed in April of 1861 with the bombardment of Fort Sumpter. After surrendering the fort to Confederate forces, the garrison was allowed to keep their colors. These colors were taken on a tour of the northern states and used as a recruiting tool to enlist volunteers into the Union Army. This tour sparked a wave of “flagmania” as everyone began buying and displaying the flag.
Today, the flag isn’t seen so much as a symbol of the government, but as a symbol of the nation and its people, often being used to protest the government. It represents us as a people; our cultural melting pot and our shared history — warts and all.
It’s OUR flag.