The history of the American Flag is long and storied.  Our flag is one of the most dynamic of any flag of any nation.  It reflects the growth of the nation, from the original 13 Colonies to our current union of 50 States.  The flag was present on the battlefields of the Revolution, over Fort McHenry, draped from President Lincoln's theater box where he was assassinated, carried to the poles, carried onto the beaches of Normandy, flown to and planted on the moon, and found, tattered and torn, but otherwise intact, in the debris of the World Trade Center.  Below is a historical timeline that highlights some significant events related to the history of our flag.

During the first year of the American Revolution, American military forces, and in particular the American Navy, required a flag to distinguish ships and units of the Colonies from those of Great Britain.  The Continental Colors, documented to have been flown by John Paul Jones aboard the ship Alfred as early as December 5, 1775, represented the United States during the first two years of the Revolutionary War.  Known today as the Grand Union Flag, it is considered the first National Flag of the United States.  American forces fought under the Continental Colors during the period of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, until the Union Jack canton of Continental Colors was replaced by the starry constellation of the Stars and Stripes with enactment of the first Flag Act of June, 1777.

A Centennial Era example of the Continental Colors, c1876.

On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act, that replaced the Continental Colors that had represented the Colonies through from 1775 to through the first half of 1777 with the Stars and Stripes. 

"Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation."

The concept of a Constellation of white stars was an elegant and appropriate description of the canton of the flag, which would come to represent the individual states themselves.  Whether the framers intentionally omitted any further guidance, considering the fact that constellations of stars can and do consist of an unlimited number of possible star arrangements, is unknown.  But it is precisely because of this lack of guidance that we see the unlimited number of variations in the American flags that would follow.


A beautiful "constellation"
of 36 stars on a flag of the Civil War era

In response to the addition of Vermont and Kentucky, Congress acted once again to provide guidance on the flag.  The Second Flag Act, signed into law by President George Washington, did not demonstrate the forethought that previous and subsequent flag acts would exhibit, instead decreeing:

"That the flag of the United States be fifteen stripes, alternate red and white and that the union be fifteen stars, white in a blue field."

By once again specifying the number of stars, and in this case, the number of stripes as well, the act was destined for obsolescence as yet more states would continue to join the Union.  Nevertheless, the most famous and cherished of all American flags, the Star Spangled Banner, would be produced under this flag act and conform to its specifications of 15 stars and 15 stripes.


The Star Spangled Banner,
our most cherished flag c1813

Realizing that a more permanent solution was needed to keep the flag properly updated, Congress passed the Flag Act of 1818 on April 4, 1818.  This act, which would remain the final official guidance on the U.S. flag for nearly a century, was signed by President James Monroe.

"An Act to establish the flag of the United States. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress Assembled, That from and after the fourth day of July next, the flag of the United States be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white: that the union be twenty stars, white in a blue field. And be it further enacted, That on the admission of every new state into the Union, one star be added to the union of the flag; and that such addition shall take effect of the fourth day of July then next succeeding such admission."

The flag was an excellent compromise, allowing the stars to grow, the thirteen stripes remaining representative of the original 13 colonies, and a firm date by which a new flag would become official.

A jubilant star added to welcome yet another
new state

The era of unbridled creativity in arranging stars on the cantons of U.S. flags came to an end in 1912, when President William Howard Taft issued an Executive Order dated June 24, 1912, which established the proportions of the flag and an arrangement of six horizontal rows of eight stars each for a total of 48.  Only minor modifications made by President Eisenhower in 1959, once for the admission of Alaska (49) and then, a year later for the admission of Hawaii (50), bring us to the flag we know today.

One of the last
"great constellations", this
48 star canton represents the end of an era

The American flag, one of the most recognizable symbols in the world.

The beautiful Stars and Stripes of 50 Stars, hung with full military
honors over the damaged south wing of the Pentagon on October 11, 2001.


Except where cited otherwise, all content 2010-2020 by Anthony Iasso   

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