The complicated history of our flag
June 20, 2014
Last Saturday, June 14, was Flag Day, the day dedicated to the American flag. Did you observe it by flying your flag? And did you know that we Americans have lived under more flags than any people in the history of the world — 27 different flags in just 238 years? How did this come about?
In 1776, after the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain and formed their own country, there was a wide variety of flags being proposed for adoption. It came down to two finalists, both of which had 13 alternating red and white stripes, representing the 13 colonies. One was the “Betsy Ross” flag, which had a blue field in the upper left quadrant containing a circle of 13 stars, one for each colony. The other had in the upper left quadrant a modified British Union Jack, which was the flag of Canada from 1763 — at the end of the French and Indian War, when Britain wrested Canada from the French — until 1800. This design was promoted by those who, after a brief occupation of Montreal and failed attempt to take Quebec in 1775, still had visions of conquering Canada and annexing it to their struggling country.
In 1777, the Continental Congress adopted as the country’s official flag a modified version of the Betsy Ross design, changing the arrangement of the stars from a circle to a rectangular pattern. This was our country’s flag until 1795, when two stars and two stripes were added in recognition of the addition of two states, Vermont in 1791, and Kentucky in 1792. In 1777, Vermont had declared independence from the overlapping land claims and jurisdictions of both New Hampshire and New York, and had operated as an independent republic for nearly 14 years. Kentucky was carved out of the western land claim of Virginia.
In 1796, the western portion of North Carolina was admitted as the State of Tennessee, followed by Ohio in 1803, and Indiana, Louisiana, and Mississippi between 1812 and 1817. It was obvious that the practice of adding both new stars and new stripes to the flag for each state was impractical, so in 1818, Congress declared that the number of stripes would be fixed at 13, and that a star should be added for each new state on July 4 of each year, starting with 20 stars in that year.
In the years since then, we have had an additional 24 different flags as new states were added. A star was added in 1819 for Illinois, and two more in 1820 for Alabama and Maine (which had been a part of Massachusetts until then). The next year, as part of the compromise of 1820, Missouri was admitted to maintain the balance in the Senate between slave and non-slave representation. And after the Civil War broke out, a star was added in 1863 for West Virginia, made up of the western counties that had seceded from Virginia.
Stars were added to the flag in each of four successive years from 1845 to 1848. The largest addition of stars to the flag was in 1890, in recognition of the admission of five states — North and South Dakota, Montana, Washington, and Idaho — all of them contiguous. North and South Dakota are the only states to be admitted on the same day, Nov. 2, 1889. Idaho just made the cut, being admitted on July 3, 1890, and Wyoming just missed it, coming in on July 10, which required adding another star to the flag in 1891. The last two states to be admitted, Alaska and Hawaii, both joined the Union in 1959, but Alaska came in January, and Hawaii in August, so the 1959 flag with 49 stars had to be replaced in 1960 with the current 50-star flag.
With the 21 separate additions of stars in the flag that took place during the 1800s, seven of them being only a year apart, it is not surprising that instead of buying a new flag every time it was changed, many people just sewed an impromptu star or two to their flags, which of course did not match the rearrangements of the stars that were on the official flags. The flags with the longest official durations are the 48-star flag, which was in service for 47 years from 1912 until 1959, and the current 50-star flag, now in its 54th year and still going strong.
— “As I See It” appears on the third Saturday of the month. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.