• Exploring American History

Defined by our colors

When gathered to establish the foundation of the country known as the United States of America, delegates to the Continental Congress in 1777 focused a portion of their attention on the banner by which they would be identified. On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act: “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.”

Having been a part of England, it is thought the delegates may have chosen red, white and blue from the Union Jack. No meaning was assigned to any of the three colors until later when the Great Seal of the United States was designed. At that time serving as secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thompson described the colors’ meanings: “. . . are those used in the flag of the United States of America: white signifies purity and innocence; red, hardiness and valor; and blue signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice.”

Most Americans know that each star stands for one of the country’s 50 states and 13 stripes the original colonies; but what was the reason for deciding to use stars and stripes in the design? Congress later published a book in which it explained the reason these two symbols were chosen: “. . . the star is a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial; the stripe is symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the sun.”

The number of stripes on the flag changed for a short period of time. On January 13, 1794, following the admission of Vermont and Kentucky to the union, an act was passed to change the number of the flag’s stars and stripes to 15, beginning the first of June, 1795. Congress soon realized the problem which could result in later years should this process continue with the addition of future states, so the idea was revised a few years later.

On April 4, 1818, President Monroe signed into law a rule which would limit the flag to thirteen stripes – seven red and six white – as a memorial of the original 13 colonies. The number of stars, however, would continue to increase, with one star added for each new state. Each star would have five points positioned upward, representing the expansion of the constellation.

To accommodate the increasing number of stars being added over the years, the pattern has fluctuated some. The first two, however, had the same number of stars which were laid out differently. The flag known as the ‘Betsy Ross Flag’ with the stars arranged in a circle, became the banner under which the Continental Army marched. Its fraternal twin, the ‘13 Star Flag’ was used by the Continental Navy.

When the United States entered World War I during June of 1917, President Woodrow Wilson stated:

This flag, which we honor and under which we serve, is the emblem of our unity, our power, our thought and purpose as a nation. It has no other character than that which we give it from generation to generation. The choices are ours. It floats in majestic silence about the hosts that execute those choices, whether in peace or in war. And yet, though silent, it speaks to us – speaks to us of the past, of the men and women who went before us, and of the records they wrote upon it . . . From its birth until now it has witnessed a great history, has floated on high the symbol of great events, of a great plan of life worked out by a great people.”

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