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Flag Day: The Birthday of the Stars and Stripes

14 June 2010
Man putting up a row of U.S. flags (AP Images)

Korean War veteran Chuck Keough puts up a row of American flags to celebrate Flag Day at his home in East Montpelier, Vermont.

Washington — June 14 is Flag Day in the United States. It is the anniversary of the adoption of the Stars and Stripes as America’s official flag in 1777 by the Continental Congress. The first flag consisted of 13 stars on a field of blue and 13 alternating red and white stripes, representing the original Colonies. As states were added, the flag was modified to reflect their addition to the nation. The 13 stripes remain, but today there is a star for each of the 50 states.

Every year, the president proclaims June 14 as Flag Day and orders flags displayed on all federal buildings; many Americans fly the flag in front of homes and businesses. The week that includes June 14 is National Flag Week.

The following is from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ website, “Celebrating America’s Freedoms,” which offers the history and meaning of some of America’s most beloved customs and national symbols.

THE UNITED STATES FLAG

The flag of the United States is one of the oldest national standards in the world. General George Washington first raised the Continental Army flag in 1776, a red-and-white striped flag with the British Union Jack where we now have stars.

Several flag designs with 13 stripes were used in 1776 and 1777, until Congress established an official design on June 14, 1777 — now observed as Flag Day. The act stated, “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.” Washington explained it this way: “We take the stars from heaven, the red from our mother country, separating it by white stripes, thus showing that we have separated from her, and the white stripes shall go down to posterity representing liberty.”

The First Flag

No records confirm who designed the original Stars and Stripes, but historians believe Francis Hopkinson, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, probably modified the unofficial Continental flag into the design we now have.

The State Navy Board of Pennsylvania, on May 29, 1777, commissioned Betsy Ross to sew flags for Navy vessels. Legend credits Ross with having sewn the first flag to meet the specifications outlined by Congress, while changing the stars from six points to five to speed her work.

The flag was first carried in battle at Brandywine, Pa., in September 1777. It first flew over foreign territory in early 1778, at Nassau, Bahama Islands, where Americans captured a fort from the British.

After Vermont and Kentucky became states in the 1790s, Congress approved adding two more stars and two more stripes to the group that represented the original 13 colonies, now states. This was the “Star Spangled Banner” of which Francis Scott Key wrote in 1814.

1818 Law Sets Final Form

As other states entered the Union, it became obvious that stripes could not be added continually, so in 1818 Congress reestablished the 13-stripe flag for the original 13 colonies and allowed for additional stars for new states.

The law specified that stripes should be horizontal, alternately red and white, and the union, or canton, should display 20 stars for the states then in the union. But it did not specify color shades or arrangement of the stars, and wide variation persisted. During the Civil War, gold stars were more common than white and the stars sometimes appeared in a circle.

The first time the Stars and Stripes flew in a Flag Day celebration was in Hartford, Conn., 1861, the first summer of the Civil War. In the late 1800s, schools held Flag Day programs to contribute to the Americanization of immigrant children, and the observance caught on with individual communities. As a patriotic custom, the Stars and Stripes still flies in front of schools when classes are in session.

In 1916, the president proclaimed a nationwide observance of Flag Day, but it was not until 1949 that Congress voted for Flag Day to be a permanent holiday. When the 49th and 50th stars were added in 1959 and 1960, the standards of design became even more precise. The regulated design calls for seven red and six white stripes, with the red stripes at top and bottom. The union of navy blue fills the upper left quarter from the top to the lower edge of the fourth red stripe. The stars have one point up and are in nine horizontal rows. The odd-numbered rows have six stars. The even-numbered rows have five stars, centered diagonally between the stars in the longer rows.

ORIGINS OF FLAG DAY

“That the flag of the United States shall be of thirteen stripes of alternate red and white, with a union of thirteen stars of white in a blue field, representing the new constellation.”

This was the resolution adopted by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777. The resolution was made following the report of a special committee which had been assigned to suggest the flag’s design.

A flag of this design was first carried into battle on September 11, 1777, in the Battle of the Brandywine. The American flag was first saluted by foreign naval vessels on February 14, 1778, when the Ranger, bearing the Stars and Stripes and under the command of Captain Paul Jones, arrived in a French port. The flag first flew over a foreign territory in early 1778 at Nassau, Bahama Islands, where Americans captured a British fort.

Observance of the adoption of the flag was not soon in coming, however. Although there are many claims to the first official observance of Flag Day, all but one took place more than an entire century after the flag’s adoption in 1777.

The first claim was from a Hartford, Conn., celebration during the first summer of 1861. In the late 1800s, schools all over the United States held Flag Day programs to contribute to the Americanization of immigrant children, and the observance caught on with individual communities.

The most recognized claim, however, comes from New York. On June 14, 1889, Professor George Bolch, principal of a free kindergarten for the poor of New York City, had his school hold patriotic ceremonies to observe the anniversary of the Flag Day resolution. This initiative attracted attention from the State Department of Education, which arranged to have the day observed in all public schools thereafter.

Soon the state legislature passed a law making it the responsibility of the state superintendent of public schools to ensure that schools hold observances for Lincoln’s Birthday, Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day and Flag Day. In 1897, the governor of New York ordered the displaying of the flag over all public buildings in the state, an observance considered by some to be the first official recognition of the anniversary of the adoption of the flag outside of schools.

Another claim comes from Philadelphia. In 1893, the Society of Colonial Dames succeeded in getting a resolution passed to have the flag displayed on all of the city’s public buildings. Elizabeth Duane Gillespie, a direct descendant of Benjamin Franklin and the president of the Colonial Dames of Pennsylvania, that same year tried to get the city to call June 14 Flag Day. Resolutions by women were not granted much notice, however, and it was not until May 7, 1937, that Pennsylvania became the first state to establish the June 14 Flag Day as a legal holiday. Flag Day is a nationwide observance today, but Pennsylvania is the only state that recognizes it as a legal holiday.

Bernard J. Cigrand, a school teacher in Waubeka, Wisconsin, reportedly spent years trying to get Congress to declare June 14 as a national holiday. Although his attempts failed, the day was widely observed. “Father of Flag Day” honors have been given to William T. Kerr, who was credited with founding the American Flag Day Association in 1888 while still a schoolboy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Both President Wilson, in 1916, and President Coolidge, in 1927, issued proclamations asking for June 14 to be observed as the National Flag Day. But it wasn’t until August 3, 1949, that Congress approved the national observance, and President Harry Truman signed it into law.

Also see: “Seamstress for a Revolution.”

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov)

Statue of soldiers raising flag at Iwo Jima (AP Images)

The Marine Corps War Memorial near Washington represents the raising of the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima during the World War II battle there.

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