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 Peter Takes on History 

June 14, 1777

Stars, Stripes and Suspect Stories

So last night I spent an alarming amount of time online trying to understand the design of our flag. You know, the red, the white and the blue of it.
My question led me back through the topic of heraldry and blazoning. Not emblazoning. Technically that’s drawing a picture of a coat of arms. But, let’s say you’re bad with crayons or you can’t figure out how to paste a jpeg in a doc, you’ll have to describe that coat of arms. That’s called blazoning and it has a very concise and specific language to it. For example, in Heraldic terms, the current American flag has 50 MULLETS and a BARRY of 6 ARGENTS AND 7 GULES. Translation? Mullets are five sided stars. Argents are white stripes, gules are red stripes and barry indicates they’re horizontal. Now if the stripes are vertical it’s not a BARRY, it’s a PALY. And that’s how the red and white stripes showed up on one of the earliest of American flags.
The flag of the Sons of Liberty, the paramilitary rabble rousers who brought you the Boston Tea Party; their flag had vertical red and white stripes. The Crown really hated those guys and quickly outlawed the PALY of ARGENT and GULE so, the Sons of Liberty went all BARRY; turned their stripes 90˚. That’s how we got our horizontal stripes.
But why red and white? Mostly convenience.
See, in the mid 1700’s all English and Colonial Merchant Ships flew what’s called the Red Ensign. There were lots of them around. You can picture it; a red flag with the UK’s Union Jack in a box, upper left, near the flagpole. So, if you want to make a statement to the crown, you deface the Red Ensign by adding some white stripes and you’ve got what was called “The Grand Union Flag.” Our first “national flag.”
It wasn’t a bad compromise for a first flag. Remember, at this point a majority of colonists were still not ready to break with England. What most colonists wanted was a reboot. A reconciliation. Some seats at the Parliamentary table. A side of Representation with all that Taxation.
So, with the Grand Union flag Loyalists could point to the Union Jack and say, “See? Don’t worry. We’re still English! Just a little different!” The Revolutionary crowd could say, “Who has their own national flag? Independent countries, that’s who. And if we don’t start getting some respect, you're going to start seeing stripes.”
And over in Philly, the Second Continental Congress was pushing the revolutionary agenda, making it hard for England and America to kiss and make up. After all, they had a committee drafting a Declaration of Independence, right? And they’d given Colonel Washington a promotion and an army!!
It was getting real for General George. He left the Continental Congress for his home in Virginia carrying two flags; The Grand Union flag and his own military flag. Known as the Washington Headquarters Flag it was a solid blue flag with 13 stars on it. Put the Grand Union Flag and the Washington Headquarters flag together and you’ve got some stars and stripes, right? Let’s imagine he takes that idea to a local upholsterer, Elizabeth Ross. Betsy to her friends. And we’ve got ourselves a legend.
I say legend because there is absolutely no concrete evidence that Betsy Ross sewed a flag for George Washington. That whole story didn’t surface until a hundred years later when Ross’s grandson started spreading the family lore. Nothing concrete to back it up. But he offered this one perfect detail that got lots of traction. See, the Washington’s Headquarters flag had six-pointed stars. But the story goes Betsy showed George how easy it was to fold fabric and with one snip cut perfect five point stars … like we have today. So maybe?
If evidence is your thing, it’s probably more likely that a guy named Francis Hopkinson designed the flag we know. Credible guy, signer of the Declaration of Independence, Secretary of the Navy and Naval Flag Designer by trade. Hopkinson actually submitted an invoice to Congress claiming he was due a quarter cask of wine as payment for his design. He was turned down because Congress decided our flag wasn’t really designed. It kinda evolved. The National Archive still has Hopkinson’s unpaid invoice.
Regardless of who gets the credit, we can say with certainty that on this day, June 14, 1777, Congress passed the first Flag Resolution, standardizing our national flag with 13 red and white stripes, and 13 white stars in a blue field “representing a new constellation.”
Less than two months later, on August 3rd, the first official U.S. flag was flown during a battle at Fort Schuyler in the Bronx. During the battle reinforcements brought news of the adoption by Congress of the official flag but they didn’t bring a flag. So, based on the congressional specification, soldiers cut up their shirts to make stars and white stripes. The red stripes were cut from the red flannel petticoats of officers' wives and the material for the blue field was snipped from one Capt. Abraham Swartwout's blue cloth coat. Capt. Swartwout later billed Congress for his coat. The National Archive still has that invoice too but it was marked “PAID”.

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