No symbol representing the United States is as instantly recognizable as the national flag. Known under many names, from the Stars and Stripes and the Star-Spangled Banner to Red, White, and Blue and Old Glory, the flag of the United States of America is more than just a national symbol; it is a historical and cultural icon.
Discover the history behind the flag and its original meaning, learn about flag rules and etiquette, and some of the most commonly seen flag variants and their associated meanings.
The Meaning of Each Flag Element
To understand the American flag’s meaning, you need to know about the significance of every element that composes it.
The flag comprises two basic elements: the canton or union (the blue corner with the stars) and the field, composed of red and white stripes.
The canton is a rectangle of Old Glory Blue overlaid with 50 white 5-pointed stars, representing the 50 states of the Union. The field comprises 13 stripes, 7 in Old Glory Red and 6 in plain white, representing the original 13 colonies founded in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The current American Flag (as of 2021) featuring 50 stars
According to a 1977 book published by the House of Representatives simply titled “Our Flag,” the stars and stripes possess additional meanings, paraphrased from the words of 19th-century clergyman Henry Ward Beecher:
Stars: The book describes the stars as a “symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial.”
Stripes: The stripes are “symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the sun.”
After the federal government designed and officially used the Great Seal of the United States for the first time, they gave the colors on the American flag a meaning:
Red symbolizes hardiness and valor.
White signifies purity and innocence.
Blue represents vigilance, perseverance, and justice.
In 1986, then-President Reagan offered a different interpretation, stating that the flag’s colors represented the “qualities of the human spirit (that) Americans cherish”:
Red represents courage and readiness to sacrifice.
White signifies pure intentions and high ideals.
Blue symbolizes vigilance and justice.
Many people view the flag as a representation of more than just the nation of the United States. For many, the American flag is also a symbol of liberty and freedom, just like the Statue of Liberty.
History of the American Flag and What it Means
Many Americans have heard about Elizabeth “Betsy” Ross, the Philadelphia seamstress who allegedly sewed the first version of the Stars and Stripes in May of 1776.
The Betsy Ross Flag
Although Betsy Ross did exist and make flags for the Navy, there is little evidence that she sewed the first flag, and today’s historians consider the Betsy Ross story a popular legend. In reality, there were many “first flags.”
Thirteen Stars, Thirteen Stripes
The American flag’s history truly begins on June 14, 1777, after the Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution, defining the design of the American flag with the following declaration:
“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.”
The first official flag of the United States
This design was the first flag of the United States since its declaration of independence, abandoning the prior Grand Union Flag adopted under British colonial rule.
The Grand Union Flag of the United States
Multiple interpretations of the original design described in the Flag Resolution have been used between 1777 and 1795, each featuring a different star arrangement. The most common features 5 rows of stars, alternating between 3 and 2 stars per row.
Three of the most famous alternative first flag designs include the following:
Betsy Ross flag: This flag variant is easily recognizable by the 13 stars arranged in a circular pattern, as famously depicted on the Department of Veterans Affairs’ official seal. Although this flag is associated with Betsy Ross, the original author of this variant is unknown.
Hopkinson flag: Designed by Francis Hopkinson in 1777, this variant has the same star arrangement as the standard flag but with 6 pointed stars instead of 5.
Cowpens flag: This variant is similar to the Betsy Ross flag, but with a circle composed of 12 stars, with the 13th star in the center. Said to have been carried by William Batchelor of the 3rd Maryland Regiment during the Battle of Cowpens in 1781.
The First Star-Spangled Banner
The first revision to the American flag was adopted in 1795, adding 2 stars and 2 stripes to the flag, symbolizing Vermont and Kentucky.
The only American flag to feature more than 13 stripes
This new flag featured 5 rows of three stars, arranged in staggered columns, and was unique for two reasons: this was the first, and so far, the only official American flag to feature more than 13 stripes, and it was the first to be called the Star-Spangled Banner.
One Star for Every New State
The history of the American flag is a reflection of the nation’s own history and progression.
Every revision to the American flag that followed the 1795 version returned to the original 13 stripes, only changing the number and arrangement of stars with each new state joining the Union.
Starting in 1818, the government introduced updated flags on July 4th following the admission of one or multiple new states. Most variations of the flag were short-lived, many only being used for a single year.
The flag was revised 25 times after the 15-star variant was adopted. Here are the years of adoption for each, alongside the corresponding states:
20 stars (1818): Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana, and Mississippi.
21 stars (1819): Illinois.
23 stars (1820): Alabama, Maine.
24 stars (1822): Adopted after the introduction of Missouri into the Union. A copy of this flag was owned by sea captain William Driver, who famously referred to it as Old Glory in 1831.
25 stars (1836): Arkansas.
26 stars (1837): Michigan.
27 stars (1845): Florida.
28 stars (1846): Adopted the year following the annexation of Texas and its subsequent admission into the Union.
29 stars (1847): Iowa.
30 stars (1848): Wisconsin.
31 stars (1851): California.
32 stars (1858): Minnesota.
33 stars (1859): Oregon.
34 stars (1861): Kansas.
35 stars (1863): West Virginia.
36 stars (1865): Nevada.
37 stars (1867): Nebraska became the 37th state in March, with the new star added just four months later.
38 stars (1877): Colorado.
43 stars (1890): North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, and Idaho.
44 stars (1891): Wyoming.
45 stars (1896): Utah.
46 stars (1908): Oklahoma.
48 stars (1912): The 47th and 48th stars represent New Mexico and Arizona. The 48-star variant is one of the most famous historical flags in American history and the second longest-lived, having been used for 47 years.
49 stars (1959): This short-lived flag was adopted following the admission of Alaska, the first non-contiguous U.S. State.
50 stars (1960): After Hawaii gained statehood in 1959, the 50th star was added on July 4, 1960, resulting in the latest and current flag of the United States. As of August 2021, it has seen over 61 years of service, making it the longest-lived design.
There are many popular, modern variations on the American flag, each with its own associated symbolism. The “Thin Line” flags are among the most well-known: black-and-white or greyed-out versions of the US flag with a singular colored stripe, each color representing a different uniformed service.
Three of the best-known Thin Line flags are as follows:
The black and blue American flag features a blue stripe (the Thin Blue Line), symbolizing police and law enforcement.
The red and black American flag possesses a red stripe (Thin Red Line) instead of blue, representing firefighters.
The grey and white American flag is black and grey, with a single white stripe (Thin White Line) representing emergency medical services.
Additional Facts about the American Flag
Here are more facts you may not know about the American flag:
The Flag Code is a federal law outlining flag etiquette and advisory rules on displaying and caring for American flags.
The American Flag has a holiday on June 14: Flag Day, commemorating the flag’s adoption on June 14, 1777.
The U.S. flag patch worn on Army uniforms appears reversed on the right shoulder. It is intentional as per Army regulations, as it symbolizes a flag advancing forwards.
The flag of Brittany, where Benjamin Franklin sailed in 1776 to sign the first alliance treaty with France, was intentionally based on the American flag.
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