Terry McLaughlin: Whose broad stripes and bright stars
One of my closest friends celebrates her birthday next week on June 14. I never have trouble remembering her birthday because June 14 is also when we celebrate Flag Day in the United States.
I even recall her 16th birthday (which was a very long time ago, indeed!), and giving her a keychain with the image of Betsy Ross stitching an American flag.
We Americans do love our flag. We pledge our allegiance to it and we sing a national anthem about it. We have given our flag many nicknames, including “Old Glory,” the “Stars and Stripes,” and the “Red, White and Blue.”
The modern American flag has actually changed more than 60 times since its first appearance in 1775, when revolutionary fever began to swelter. Some historians believe the Continental Navy flew a flag with a red-striped background featuring a snake, along with the inscription “Don’t Tread On Me.” This sentiment and symbol later became associated with the United States Marine Corps. The “Liberty Tree” symbol in the upper left corner bordered by red, white and blue stripes was also a popular flag in New England.
On the first day of January 1776, the Grand Union Flag was flown on Prospect Hill in Massachusetts. This flag featured the British Union Jack in the upper left corner surrounded by thirteen red and white stripes, symbolizing the 13 colonies. Five months later, a Philadelphia seamstress named Betsy Ross produced what we think of as the first American flag, featuring 13 white stars laid in a circle on a blue background, surrounded by 13 red and white stripes. Although some historians have questioned the validity of the Betsy Ross story, it has become a popular part of our American folklore, and the Continental Congress adopted this design as the first official flag of the country on June 14, 1777.
In 1795, with the inclusion of Kentucky and Vermont into the Union, two more stars were added to the flag and the star pattern was shifted from a circle to five staggered rows. On April 14, 1818 an Act was signed by President James Monroe declaring there would be 13 stripes and one star for each state on the flag, and that stars for each new state would be added on the July 4th after their admission to the Union. By 1896 there were 44 stars on our American flag.
“Desecration” Statutes began to be adopted in states around the country in 1897 to outlaw altering or abusing the flag for commercial or political purposes. Among the specifics prohibited by the statutes were marking the flag, trampling the flag, or even talking negatively about the flag.
The specific measurements, orientation and details of the flag were officially established in a presidential executive order in 1912, at which time three more stars were added for Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma. President Harry S. Truman officially established June 14th as “Flag Day” in 1949.
By 1960 stars for Alaska and Hawaii had been added to the flag and the modern American flag was officially complete, with five rows of alternating five and six stars. Robert G. Heft designed the current 50-star flag as a high school history class project when he was a junior at Lancaster High School, in Lancaster, Ohio. His teacher, Stanley Pratt, awarded him a B- for the project but agreed that if the flag design was accepted by the United States Congress, he would reconsider the grade. More than 1,500 flag designs were submitted to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and at least three of them had designs identical to Robert Heft’s 50-star proposal. This design was chosen and adopted by presidential proclamation in 1959 after the admission of Alaska into the Union and before that of Hawaii. According to Heft, his teacher, Mr. Pratt, honored their agreement and changed his grade to an A. In an article about Robert Heft’s death, “The Saginaw News” reported in December of 2009 that since designing the flag, “Heft visited the White House 14 times under nine presidents and toured with Bob Hope.”
America has only two national symbols, the bald eagle and the American flag. Recognized worldwide, the American flag has survived for almost 250 years and through two World Wars, and it has evolved both physically and symbolically in times of crisis and accomplishment. The flag has been a unifying force, symbolizing the hope, pride and strength of our great country. The red represents hardiness and valor, the white symbolizes purity and innocence, and the blue represents vigilance, perseverance and justice.
Though tattered and dirty flying above the rubble of the World Trade Center after Sept. 11, 2001, the American flag provided a symbol that it, like our country, would prevail.
It has been used to represent nationalism, patriotism, rebellion and everything in between, and despite recent controversies regarding disrespect for the flag and the national anthem, our devotion to our American flag remains. I am confident that it will continue to be the inspiration for songs, poems, books and art, for the history of our flag is the very history of America itself.
We are all inspired each time we say “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Nevada City, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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