The evolution of the American flag as we see it today had several significant dates and milestones along the way. Let us consider a few of them.
On June 14, 1777, the first Flag Act was passed by the Continental Congress in session. It read: “Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.”
Due to no records—or perhaps records lost—we cannot be absolutely certain who designed and made the first flag ordered by the Continental Congress. Congressman Francis Hopkinson is credited with designing it, but there is no concrete evidence to this attribution.
All the stories and books we’ve read about the Philadelphia seamstress, Betsy Ross, who made the flag that rallied the Revolutionary War soldiers may have not contained the full truth about the originator of the flag. History tends to get rewritten at times, or adequate records proving facts get lost or misplaced. We are told now that “few historians believe that Betsy Ross made the first flag.” (from “Evolution of the United States Flag,” at: usflag.org./history). I regret these doubts, for as a school child, and also as a teacher, I can remember loving the story of Betsy Ross and the Flag.
The next act of record was in the US Congress on January 13, 1794, which stipulated that the flag have “15 stripes and 15 stars after May 1795.” The reason for this addition was to recognize the states of Vermont (entered the Union March 4, 1791) and Kentucky (entered the Union June 1, 1792). It had taken two years to make this change including the new states, and it proved, as we will see later, to be a rather unwise move on the part of the Congress, for stripes could not be added with each state that came into the Union. It would have made the flag too large, as states were being added frequently to the growing nation. Eventually, the stripes went back to thirteen, to represent the original colonies of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island. These states are listed in the order they officially joined the Union from December 7, 1787 through May 29, 1790.
An Act of Congress on April 4, 1818 cancelled out the fifteen stripes from the act of 1794, and called for the original thirteen stripes representing the thirteen original colonies. This act also provided for the addition to the flag of a star to represent each state. The flag was to be updated on the 4th of July each year after each new state was added. James Monroe, 5th president, signed this bill into law. When he signed the bill there were twenty states in the Union. In addition to the 13 original colonies, Vermont (1791) and Kentucky (1792), Tennessee joined on June 1, 1796, Ohio on March 1, 1803, Louisiana on April 30, 1812, Indiana on December 11, 1816, and Mississippi on December 10, 1817.
The next Act was an Executive Order by President William Howard Taft, 27th president, dated June 24, 1912, establishing standard proportions to the flag. Prior to that, there was no standard size. This act also asked for arrangement of the white stars in the field of blue, representing the states, set in six horizontal rows of eight stars per row. This was, of course, after the nation had grown to 48 states. It was directed that a single point of each star point upward in the new design. Arizona had been added to the Union as the 48th state on February 14, 1912.
But the states were to grow by two more states, Alaska, added January 3, 1959 and Hawaii on August 21, 1959. While President Dwight D. Eisenhower served as president, he signed two executive orders regarding the flag, which made provision for the two new states added during his administration. On January 3, 1959 his order provided for the arrangement of stars in seven rows of seven stars each, “staggered horizontally and vertically.” Then seven months later, on August 21, 1959, his executive order asked for “nine rows of stars staggered horizontally and eleven rows of stars staggered vertically.”
Since the design of the flag in 1959 that included all fifty states, with a star for each, we have had no changes in our beloved national banner.
Henry Ward Beecher, noted American writer and minister, wrote in 1861 just prior to the Civil War when our country was about to be split asunder: “Our flag carries American ideas, American history, and American feelings. It is not a painted rag. It is a whole national history. It is the Constitution. It is the Government. It is the emblem of the sovereignty of the people. It is the nation.”
We know that some of the statements of statesman Beecher are highly metaphorical and symbolic. As we see the flag, may we be moved, as he was, to remember that it is a representation of a strong union of the people. It has inspired in battle and in peacetime. “Long may it wave!”
c 2011 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Jan. 13, 2011 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.