On June 14, 1777, John Adams introduced a resolution to Congress “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 measure passed unanimously. Word was rushed to Middlebrook Heights, N.J., where General George Washington was encamped with the Continental Army, which coincidentally was exactly two years old that day. The next morning Washington raised a flag that met congressional specifications over his headquarters.
Rather, it seems that Congress followed the general’s specs. The initial design was conceived by Washington a year earlier, based on the Grand Union Flag but replacing the Union Flag in the canton with a blue field with 13 stars. The traditional story has it that Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross made some improvements on his original sketch, such as arranging the stars in a circle, and making them five-pointed, instead of the six-pointed stars Washington had suggested. He believed the six-pointed star was easier to cut from cloth, but Betsy demonstrated she could as easily make one five pointed. Imagine the added difficulty we would face in the Middle East today had Betsy been less dexterous.
This was one story of the flag’s origin. Francis Hopkinson of N.J. is another claimant to the title of flag designer. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a poet, musician, and bon vivant. In 1780 he wrote a letter seeking compensation for his work, asking for “a Quarter Cask of the public Wine.” A spirited petition. But being a member of Congress he was already on the payroll, so his request was turned down. Of course both accounts may be true — Betsy Ross could well have crafted the prototype flag and Hopkinson may have then drafted the official design based on it, from which other flags were made. History and legend need not always be obliged to duel to the death.
Flag Day has had a fitful history, never quite rising to the level of other holidays, either officially or in the public mind. It is a legal holiday only in Pennsylvania. As a patriotic commemoration it is overshadowed by Independence Day, which is reasonable; July 4 saw the codification of the ideals for which the flag is but the symbol. The notion of a holiday for the flag had waxed and waned in various localities in the 19th century. Credit for Flag Day as we know it usually goes to Bernard J. Cigrand, a 19-year-old school teacher at Stony Hill School in Fredonia Wisconsin. On June 14, 1885, he asked his students to write essays on the meaning and significance of the flag on what he called “Flag Birthday.” In subsequent years he and others campaigned energetically for a national flag-day observance.
President Woodrow Wilson issued the first Flag Day proclamation on June 14, 1916, after leading a “preparedness parade” in Washington, D.C. His speech at the base of the Washington Monument highlighted the dangers of disunity in the country, and the threat of the “hyphenated-Americans,” particularly with Europe at war. The occasion was more than a little political. The Democratic National Convention opened that same day in St. Louis, with incumbent Wilson the only name nominated, and the speakers sounding the same incendiary themes. Wilson’s second Flag Day speech in 1917, after the United States had entered the war against Germany and its allies, had something of an “I told you so” quality.
The holiday was observed intermittently in subsequent decades. One of the stalwarts in promoting flag awareness in the interwar period was Colonel James Alfred Moss, U.S. Army (ret), who founded the United States Flag Association in 1924. Moss, who graduated at the bottom of his West Point class of 1894, was one of the most prolific authors in the Army. His book The Flag of the United States: Its History and Symbolism, and other related titles on the same theme, instructed many generations on proper flag etiquette. The Association also engaged in flag-related activism, such as warning Americans not to buy cheap foreign-made flags. Those made in Japan, for example, were particularly unsuitable because the colors ran when the flag got wet — something we of course know these colors just don’t do.
Flag Day was finally made a national holiday by act of Congress in 1949. But what does the holiday mean? Rather, what is the meaning of the flag? We know its visceral effect, its power as a symbol. The “rally around the flag” effect in times of crisis is more than a slogan. We saw that response after the 9/11 attacks, a proliferation of stars and stripes, as Americans instinctively sought a way to express their solidarity in the face of a foreign threat to our way of life. For a time, Old Glory was omnipresent. Too brief a time.
But the flag is always on hand to inspire, to motivate, to stir our sense of something larger than ourselves. It is an emblem of ideals, and of our history. We fly the flag, we honor it, but not from blind patriotism, not allegiance without reflection. In Wilson’s 1917 speech he observed that the flag “has no other character than that which we give it from generation to generation. The choices are ours.” We define what the flag means, to the United States, to the rest of the world. The flag absent the ideals of the Founders, lacking citizens who uphold those ideals, has no meaning at all. The active engagement of those ideals, their concrete expression, is what gives the flag its strength. Through our actions, the policies of our government, the way we lead our daily lives, we give the flag its meaning and purpose. The flag is a call to duty, to the country, our communities, ourselves. It is a marker laid down by a people, by a nation, engaged in the greatest experiment in freedom in human history.