History of the US Flag

I know this blog has a very specific focus on European heraldry, but it’s good to branch out sometimes, right? I thought I’d take a quick dip into the semi-related field of vexillology in honor of US Independence Day, and look at the evolution of the United States flag.

During the Revolutionary War, various commanders and militia groups flew their own flags. The Gadsden flag was used by the Continental Navy starting in December 1775, possibly borrowing the symbolism and motto from the flag of the Culpeper Minutemen, established earlier that year. The rattlesnake was a fairly common symbol of the colonies, being both a native and extremely dangerous animal. The pine tree also appears pretty frequently, in both the Continental flag reportedly used at Bunker Hill and the eponymous Pine Tree Flag used by a small naval squadron under George Washington’s direct authority as well as the Massachusetts state navy.

Once the Second Continental Congress got properly up and running, they adopted the Grand Union Flag, possibly based on the flag of the British East India Company. If you take a look at that first link, you’ll notice the red saltire is missing from the Grand Union’s version of the British flag; it wasn’t added until Ireland joined the UK in 1801, and by then, the US flag had moved on. Putting the then-contemporary British Union Flag in the canton seems like an odd choice for a country trying to declare independence, but both Massachusetts and New York had been doing the same thing.

The Grand Union flag lasted for about two years before the Second Continental Congress adopted the first stars-and-stripes pattern in 1777, consisting of “thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” It’s not entirely clear where the stars came from. There’s a legend that they were adapted from the Washington coat of arms (argent two bars, in chief three molets of five points gules), but this seems unlikely. While the cult of personality that grew up around George Washington, especially after his death, could get pretty intense, the widespread cultural disdain for monarchy in early US history makes me doubt that they would adapt an individual’s personal arms for a national flag.

In 1795, two additional stars and stripes were added to represent the new states of Vermont and Kentucky. The fifteen stripes persisted until 1818, when Congress decided to add a new star for every state, but also to revert to 13 stripes for the original colonies. While the pattern of one new star per state has been consistent throughout US history, I find it fascinating that the specific arrangement of the stars wasn’t set until 1912. Throughout the 1800s, we see a wide variation of star arrangements – I think my personal favorites are the Great Star flags, though the snowflake is also pretty neat.

(Quick tangent – this is why describing the positioning of charges is so important in blazon. “Thirteen molets of five points, 3, 2, 3, 2, 3” is not the same as “a circle of thirteen molets of five points,” and writing only “thirteen molets” doesn’t help other heralds, artists, and historians distinguish between the cases.)

The last change to the flag was made in 1960, when the 50th star was added for Hawaii, making the current design the longest-lasting in US history at 59 years. Both Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have held statehood votes in the past few years, and American Samoa also explored the possibility of becoming a state, so a 51-star design may be necessary someday.

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