What’s in a Flag?

On July 4, 1776, the United States declared independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain (now called the United Kingdom). At the time, there were more than two dozen British colonies in North America, stretching from the Caribbean to the Canadian Arctic. Thirteen of these colonies rebelled: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts Bay, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

 

This 4th of July will find Americans celebrating the red, white, and blue. But what do those colors, and our flag, mean?

 

The Flag of the United States of America has 13 alternating red and white strips and 50 white stars on a blue field. Each star represents a state, and the stripes represent the 13 original colonies. The flag is a symbol of freedom and liberty.

The Stars and Stripes originated as a result of a resolution adopted by the Marine Committee of the Second Continental Congress at Philadelphia on June 14, 1777. June 14 is now known as Flag Day. The men resolved that the flag of the 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 Grand Union Flag. Photograph courtesy Makaristos, Wikicommons

The Grand Union Flag. Photograph by Makaristos, courtesy Wikimedia. I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain.

This Flag Act replaced the Grand Union Flag, which was the unofficial American flag until the Stars and Stripes was adopted. The Grand Union Flag incorporated the familiar Union Jack of Great Britain in its upper left corner. The departure from the Grand Union Flag represented the split of the American colonies from the Kingdom of Great Britain. The new American flag told the story of the American colonies—those 13 stars on a field of blue—and disregarded the Union Jack.

Photograph courtesy Makaristos, Wikicommons

The Betsy Ross Flag. How many stars and stripes can you count? Photograph by Makaristos, courtesy Wikimedia. I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain.

The Flag Act gave no instructions about the look or arrangement of the stars, which resulted in many different interpretations in the early years of the United States. For example, some flags had stars in a circle, others in rows. Some stars had eight points and others had six. Among the best-known of the Revolutionary patriots who made flags is Elizabeth (Betsy) Ross. She made flags for 50 years. Her flags arranged the stars in a circle.

800px-US_flag_15_stars.svg

The 15×15 Flag. How many stars and stripes can you count? Photograph by Jacobolus, adapted by Abjiklam, courtesy Wikimedia. I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain.

In 1794, the number of stars and stripes on the flag each increased to 15 to reflect Kentucky and Vermont’s admittance to the Union. This flag was the official flag of the U.S. from 1795 to 1818, and inspired the national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” The modern flag, with 13 stripes and a star for every state, was adopted on April 4, 1818 by President James Monroe. The flag as we know it today came to be in 1960, when Hawaii became the 50th state.

The Flag of the United States of America. Photograph by Chris Hamilton, National Geographic Creative

The Flag of the United States of America. Photograph by Chris Hamilton, National Geographic

 

Overtime, the colors of the flag have come to mean:

Red for valor and bravery

White for purity and innocence

Blue for vigilance, perseverance, and justice

So, what’s in a flag? The story of a nation’s history! This 4th, instead of hosting your own hot dog eating contest, learn about the flag and share its story with others.

 

A very happy 4th of July from all your friends at the Center for Geo-Education. Written by Samantha Zuhlke, National Geographic Center for Geo-Education. 

 

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