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Wave that flag: Old Glory through the centuries

The United States is probably the most flag-obsessed nation in the world, and July 4th is arguably the most popular day to fly it. 

Other nations, for the most part, reserve displaying  their national colors for government buildings and ceremonial events marking special dates in their histories. They revere their flags as much as we do, but aren’t nearly as demonstrative about the whole thing.

For many foreigners visiting our shores, it comes as a shock seeing Old Glory everywhere, such as car bumper stickers, or flying high from the back of pickups, on coat lapels, on tall poles in front of private residences, at the announcement of a new donut shop and, well … everywhere. 

According to The Flag Manufacturers Association of America in a statement released on Flag Day, June 14, 2024 (yes, we’re the only ones who have a day named for the flag) there are about 150 million American flags sold each year, 94% of which are made in the U.S.A.

Italian author and educator Arnaldo Testi, writing on the subject of America’s ubiquitous flag-flying, said, “On the very first day I set foot in the United States as a young student from Europe too many years ago, I accidentally mistook a renowned fast food restaurant for the local post office. Why the silly mistake? Because of the national flag flying in front of it. I thought it was the official building I was looking for, not a commercial joint.”

Flags are symbols, of course, and historically symbols are used to promote ideology. The sight of someone burning the American flag — whether at home or abroad — produces powerful emotions. In June 1989, the Supreme Court, in the narrowest of decisions, voted 5-4 that a Texas man, Gregory Lee Johnson, who had burned a flag in protest outside the Republican National Convention in Dallas and was arrested on a disturbance-of-the-peace charge, had been denied his First Amendment rights. 

Justice William Brennan’s majority opinion stated: “Johnson was convicted for engaging in expressive conduct. The State’s interest in preventing breaches of the peace does not support his conviction because Johnson’s conduct did not threaten to disturb the peace. Nor does the State’s interest in preserving the flag as a symbol of nationhood and national unity justify his criminal conviction for engaging in political expression.”

Justice William Rehnquist wrote the Court’s minority opinion, that “the flag is not simply another ‘idea’ or ‘point of view’ competing for recognition in the marketplace of ideas. I cannot agree that the First Amendment invalidates the Act of Congress, and the laws of 48 of the 50 States, which make criminal the public burning of the flag.”

The Supreme Court and Old Glory were linked in controversy more recently, when photographs surfaced of a flag flown upside-down from a pole at Justice Samuel Alito’s home in January 2021. An upside-down flag is the international marker that ships at sea fly when the vessel is in distress; the reversed flag was also carried by some rioters at the insurrection at the Capital in January 2021. 

Justice Alito said he wasn’t aware of the flag, and actually it was his wife who had flown the flag upside down, and he respected her choice. Again, political emotions flared. 

Flying through the ages

History records that flags first became popular as symbols of state about three thousand years ago in China and India, and reverence for the cloth was present at the inception. One ruler in ancient China made it a crime to touch not just his flag, but also the person bearing it.

Our own flag came into being during the American Revolution. The Encyclopedia Britannica says it was run up a 76-foot pole at Prospect Hill in what is now Somerville, Mass., on Jan. 1, 1776, and  “was raised at the behest of Gen. George Washington, whose headquarters were nearby. The flag had 13 horizontal stripes, probably of red and white or of red, white and blue.”

There were many flags made and flown before (and sometimes after) this time, including the “Don’t Tread on Me,” banner with a rendering of a coiled rattle snake, and one emblazoned with Patrick Henry’s quote, “Give me Liberty Or Give me Death.”

Author and historian Ed Crews has chronicled the further evolution of our flag, noting that “American revolutionaries were using a variety of flags during the early 1770s to express their distaste for British rule. Some colonists had made one that featured a British Union Jack sitting in the upper-left corner of a red field with the words ‘Liberty and Union’ emblazoned in white along the field’s lower half. The tea-tossing Sons of Liberty flew a simple standard with alternating red and white stripes.”

did betsy ross design the first US flag? 

The first officially sanctioned flag, similar to the one flown in January 1776, was adopted on June 14, 1777, by the Continental Congress, with a resolution stating: “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.”

This is known as “the Betsy Ross Flag,” and has only been altered since by  adding stars as states were accepted into the union.

But did Betsy Ross sew that flag? Probably not, according to many, including Mr. Crews, who wrote, “Americans love the story of Betsy Ross’s making the nation’s first official flag … the tale of the plucky, practical Philadelphia seamstress has occupied a comfortable niche in the country’s patriotic pantheon alongside the stories of Paul Revere, the Minutemen, and Valley Forge. Ross is so beloved and so deeply embedded in the nation’s memory that somehow it seems unpatriotic, if not vaguely treasonous, to cast doubt on her story. The truth, however, is that nobody can prove that Betsy Ross had anything to do with the first official Stars and Stripes.”

Part of the skepticism about Ross’s flag-making is that the story didn’t appear until close to a century later, in 1870, and it was told by her grandson, William Canby, in a paper he wrote for the Pennsylvania Historical Society. 

According to Mr. Canby, Ross was in her sewing shop one day when “several gentlemen entered. She recognized one of these as the uncle of her deceased husband, Col. George Ross, a delegate from Pennsylvania to Congress. She also knew the handsome form and features of the dignified, yet graceful and polite Commander in Chief, who, while he was yet Colonel Washington, had visited her shop both professionally and socially many times (a friendship caused by her connection with the Ross family). They announced themselves as a committee of Congress, and stated that they had been appointed to prepare a flag, and asked her if she thought she could make one, to which she replied, with her usual modesty and self-reliance, that she did not know but she could try. She had never made one but if the pattern were shown to her she had no doubt of her ability to do it.”

Mr. Canby described how a drawing was made of a flag, but his grandmother rejected parts of it, and drew a new design, which Washington agreed to. “And,” her grandson wrote, “the Philadelphia seamstress became a flag maker for the fledgling nation.”

True? Mark Leepson, the author of “Flag: An American Biography,” has said, “As far as the big question is concerned — Did she make the first American flag? — every historical study has come to the same conclusion. There’s no good historical evidence that she did. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t. There’s simply a lack of documentation.”

The Independence Hall Association begs to differ. A private group in Philadelphia, the Association says Ross made the flag: “Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag. When we view the flag, we think of liberty, freedom, pride and Betsy Ross. The American flag flies on the moon, sits atop Mount Everest, is hurtling out in space. The flag is how America signs her name. It is no surprise that Betsy Ross has become one of the most cherished figures of American History.”

One thing is true: When Americans see the flag on the back of a pickup or flying from the Capitol dome in Washington, we know we are seeing a representation of our country and our history — containing heroics as well as controversy — from the Revolution to the present day.