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This remarkable flag is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, surviving examples of the American Flag. Research on this flag led to some fascinating insights into the early history of the American Flag that is often completely overlooked, or only minimally discussed, in most books and accounts written about the topic. The period between the first Flag Act of 1777, which established the thirteen stars and thirteen stripes pattern for the American Flag, and the second Flag Act of 1794, which adjusted the flag to fifteen stars and fifteen stripes following the introduction of Vermont and Kentucky into the Union, was in fact a period of radical and rapid change in the governance of the United States of America.

Following the signing of the Declaration of Independence in July, 1776, the Second Continental Congress set about drafting the "Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union" as the governing document over the national federation of the thirteen states. On June 14, 1777, while the Articles of Confederation were still being drafted, Congress passed the Flag Act of 1777 establishing the thirteen stars and stripes as the flag of the United States, This first Flag Act was passed by a wartime Congress presiding over a loosely banded union of colonial states which had not yet organized under a federal government charter. It was not until November 15, 1777, months after the Flag Act of 1777 was already passed, that Congress approved the Articles of Confederation, which were not ratified and in effect until March 1, 1781. While the thirteen original colonies were united as states in the common cause of the Revolution and securing their declared independence from Great Britain, at this early time they still operated very much as independent states without a democratically elected national leader or a strong centralized federal government.

The Articles of Confederation and Emergence of the United States Constitution, 1781-1787

Securing victory in the Revolutionary War, which formally ended with the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783, led to the obvious next step for the colonies, which was to determine what form the government of the United States of America would take now that they were recognized formally as separate and independent of Great Britain. Yet almost from the beginning, it became clear that the Articles of Confederation were not sufficiently strong enough to bind the member states together under an effective central governance structure. During the war, in 1781, debates about taxation and raising revenues to begin repaying mounting war debts proved contentious. Since the Articles of Confederation did not expressly give Congress the right to raise taxes, unanimous consent of the member states was required to do so. Rhode Island refused to consent to giving Congress the power of taxation, highlighting the limitations of the Articles of Confederation as a governance structure to maintain unity and implement policies supported by a majority, rather than the totality, of its members. Rhode Island, in particular, proved to be a challenging partner in the federation, strongly protective of its state's rights. This was understandable to a degree, since there did not exist significant guarantees of citizens' rights, such as those which would come a decade later with the passage of the Constitution's Bill of Rights. It is Rhode Island's intransigence with regards to ceding powers to a federal government that is likely directly related to the existence of this twelve star flag.

By 1786, struggling fiscally under the burden of debt from the Revolution and unable to pass measures under the Articles of Confederation to jointly remedy the burden, leaders of several states proposed to convene to revise the Articles of Confederation. The "Meeting of Commissioners to Remedy defects of the Federal Government" in Annapolis drew few attendees, but it laid the foundation for a second meeting in Philadelphia the following year. When the States finally met in Philadelphia to review the Articles of Confederation in June, 1787, Rhode Island did not send delegates, and only twelve states were represented. The reviewing body, which became the Constitutional Convention, determined that rather than attempting to remedy the defects of the Articles of Confederation, a new governing charter, the United States Constitution, would be drafted. Rhode Island, still wary of federal interference in its practices of printing its own paper money as well as other perceived threats to its autonomy and its citizens' religious and personal freedoms, not only abstained from attending the Constitutional Convention, but also did not attend the signing ceremony, making it the only one of the 13 original states not to be a signatory to the Constitution.1

Ratification of the United States Constitution, 1787

The United States Constitution required nine states to ratify it before it came into effect. One by one, the states began holding ratification conventions to discuss and ratify the Constitution. The country watched as each state debated the Constitution and voted to ratify it. A running political cartoon in the Massachusetts Centinel illustrates how the country anticipated each ratifying state as a new "star" in the new country's constellation. Flouting the letter and spirit of Article Seven of the proposed Constitution, the Rhode Island General Assembly called for a statewide referendum rather than a state convention, and Rhode Island voters overwhelmingly rejected the Constitution on March 24, 1788. By the time of Rhode Island's rejection, six states had already ratified the Constitution.2

Upon ratification of the Constitution by the ninth state, the United States of America entered into an unusual status which, from a flag history perspective, is often overlooked. The transition of the governance of the United States from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution was not instantaneous. Once the Constitution was officially adopted on June 21, 1788, it was agreed that on March 4, 1789, governance under the Articles of Confederation would officially end and the Constitution would come into effect.3 Virginia ratified on June 25, 1788, and New York ratified on July 26, 1788. But two hold-out states--North Carolina and Rhode Island--had still not ratified the Constitution by the time it came into effect. Thus, the first government of the United States of America under the Constitution of the United States began with just eleven states.

On March 4, 1789, the 1st United States Congress convened in New York City and declared the new Constitution to be in effect. Only the eleven states that ratified the Constitution had Representatives and Senators seated in Congress.

“At sunset on the evening of March 3d [1789], the old Confederation was fired out by thirteen guns from the fort opposite Bowling Green in New York; and on Wednesday, the 4th, the new era was ushered in by the firing of eleven guns in honor of the eleven States that had adopted the Constitution.4 The States of Rhode Island and North Carolina, now severed from the American Union, were as independent of each other as England and France. "All sea-captains," said a Providence newspaper5, "belonging to this State, will sail under the sole protection of the State of Rhode Island, having no claim to the flag of the United States, for the eleven confederate States are, in fact, the United States."6, 7

George Washington, elected on February 4, 1789 by a slate of electors from ten states (New York failed to field a slate of electors, and North Carolina and Rhode Island had not ratified the Constitution), was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, as President of just eleven states. A first-hand description from Washington's journey from Mount Vernon to New York City for the inauguration, makes an interesting observation about the flags flying during his travels:

“The greatest day that Gray's Ferry bridge ever knew was April 20, 1789. On that day George Washington crossed it on his way to New York to become first President of the nation which his sword had called into being. The "Columbian Magazine” for May, the following month, contained a fine copper-plate engraving from a drawing by Charles Wilson Peale of this bridge as decorated for the occasion, and the following description:

The whole railing, on each side of the bridge, was dressed with laurels interwoven with cedar. A triumphal arch 20 feet high, decorated with laurel and other evergreens, was erected at each end in a style of neat simplicity; under the arch of that at the west end hung a crown of laurel, connected by a line which extended to a pine tree on the high and rocky bank of the river where the other extremity was held by a handsome boy, beautifully robed in white linen; a wreath of laurel bound his brows, and a girdle of the same his waist. Eleven colours were planted on the north side of the bridge, in allusion to those states which have ratified the constitution; on the south side were two others, one emblematical of a new acra, the other representing Pennsylvania—it was the flag which captain Bell carried to the East Indies, being the first ever hoisted there belonging to this state. At the east end of the bridge a striped cap of liberty was elevated on a pole about 25 feet in height, from which spread a banner-device, a rattle-snake, with the motto, "Don't Tread On Me."  A large signal flag was hoisted in the ferry gardens, to give notice of the general's approach to those who were posted on the other side of the Schuylkill. On the top of the ferry post on the west side, a banner was displayed—the device a sun with this motto, “Behold the Rising Empire.” On the opposite shore flew a banner, alluding to commerce-motto: “May Commerce Flourish.” The ferry boat and barge were anchored in the river, and displayed a variety of colours, particularly a jack bearing eleven stars. About noon the illustrious Washington appeared and as he passed under the first triumphal arch the acclamations of an immense crowd of spectators rent the air, and the laurel crown, at that instant, descended on his venerable head. His excellency was saluted on the common by a discharge from the artillery and escorted into Philadelphia by a large body of troops, together with his excellency the president of the state, and a numerous concourse of respectable citizens.”8

"ELEVEN STARS, in quick succession rise..."
- August 2, 1788, The Massachusetts Centinel

Source: Teaching American History

The American Flag, between Nine and Twelve Stars, June 21, 1788 to May 29, 1790

Several other 19th and 20th century histories the American Flag and the events surrounding the tumultuous 1787-1790 period where the Constitution was being ratified, adopted, and placed into effect, make note of the unusual circumstances of the number of stars on the flag. Some repeat the observation of the eleven star jack present in first hand accounts of Washington's inauguration journey and others elaborate on other observed reports of the presence of flags with fewer than thirteen stars.

“It was, of course, under the Stars and Stripes that the Constitutional Convention met at Philadelphia, in 1787, and formulated the fundamental law of this republic; it was under it that the States one by one ratified the Constitution and held the first election of a President and Congress; and it was under the same banner that in 1789 Washington travelled from Mount Vernon to New York, and was there inaugurated and installed as the first President of the United States. It is said that among the decorations in the city of Philadelphia as he passed through there was displayed for the first time the ‘American Union Jack,’ consisting simply of the canton and its stars, without the stripes, and that it contained only eleven stars; North Carolina and Rhode Island not yet having ratified the Constitution. It appears, moreover, that some other flags were thus and for the same reason made without the full number of thirteen stars. Thus some are said to have been displayed with nine stars immediately after the ratification of the Constitution by New Hampshire, the ninth State to do so, at which time, according to its own provision, the Constitution was established in full force and effect. A little later, on July 4, 1788 [sic] there was at Philadelphia a great celebration of the ratification of the Constitution, and many flags with ten stars were displayed, Virginia having also by that time given her adherence to the instrument. Such adding of star after star to the Flag as the remaining States ratified the Constitution may be regarded as foreshadowing the similar adding of stars as new States in later years were created and admitted to the Union.”

- The National Flag, A History, by Willis Fletcher Johnson, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1930, pp. 68-69.

“When Washington passed through Philadelphia April 20, 1789 en route to New York to assume the office of President he was received with distinguished honors In the river were boats gayly adorned with ensigns among which was what was then a novelty an American jack which bore eleven stars representing the eleven States which had at that time ratified the Constitution.”

-  History of the flag of the United States of America, by George Henry Preble, Second Revised Edition, Boston, A. Williams and Company, 1880, pp. 297-298.

“One banner had been made up in June, 1788, after New Hampshire's ratification (the ninth state) had ensured the adoption of the new Constitution. It had but nine stars and nine stripes.”

- Flags of the U.S.A., by David Eggenberger, Crowell, 1964, p. 103.

“It would be interesting to know how large a percentage of intelligent American citizens remember that at Washington’s inauguration as our first President, flags bearing only eleven stars were displayed…”

-The North American Review, Vol. 224, No. 835, published by the University of Northern Iowa, Jun-Aug 1927, p. 188.

“The original thirteen States were New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Some of the flags used when only twelve of the States had ratified the articles of the Convention bore only twelve stars.”

- Declaration of Rights of American Colonies, 1765 and 1774, Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, Constitution of the United States and Constitution of the State of California, published by University of California, Berkeley, Superintendent State Printing, 1909, p.14

Eleven, Twelve and Finally, Thirteen

The United States of America, under the Constitution of the United States, thus operated as a country for a period of nearly 9 months (262 days, from March 4, 1789 to November 21, 1789) with a union of eleven states until North Carolina ratified the Constitution. It operated as a country for a period of more than 6 months (188 days, November 22, 1789 to May 29, 1790), with a union of twelve states until Rhode Island ratified the Constitution, finally bringing the Union to thirteen states and thirteen stars.

The situation of the country during these times was very publicly debated and discussed, and it was only after significant pressure was applied to Rhode Island, in the form of threatening to regulate trade with it as though it were a foreign country, that Rhode Island finally consented to holding a two ratification convention sessions in March, 1790 and May, 1790, resulting in ratification on May 29, 1790. The question then, is, if a flag maker were asked to make a Stars and Stripes flag between November 22, 1789 and May 29, 1790, how many stars would they likely put on the flag? Given Rhode Island's very public and adamant rejection of the Constitution, even declining to participate in the process of debating, drafting, or ratifying it, and declining any governance union with the newly formed United States of America, it is very plausible that the flag would have twelve stars to represent the current union at the time. It is reasonable too that the flag maker would choose, and be equally correct with, either twelve stripes or thirteen stripes. Maintaining the thirteen stripes would preserve the symbolism from the earliest Continental Colors and Flag Act of 1777 design of our flag, representing the thirteen original colonies and states of the Revolution. Even before the Second Flag Act of 1794 came into effect, which fixed the number of stars at fifteen and the number of stripes as fifteen following Vermont and Kentucky statehood, the practice of including the number of stars to represent the actual number of states in the Union, thus making the design of the flag inclusive, was debated vigorously. Regardless of the debate, the prevalent practice was to add stars with the addition of states. With the Third Flag Act of 1818 the official number of stripes reverted to the symbolism of the original thirteen states of the Revolutionary period, but to this day, the number of stars on the flag represents, as it always has, the number of states in the Union.

This Twelve Star Flag

All of the physical characteristics of the twelve star flag at hand show it being constructed of fabrics made prior to the widespread adoption of mechanical looms in England during the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 18th century. The wool fabrics of this flag are made of hand spun yarns and hand loomed wool bunting. It is a coarse, irregular weave that is only seen on a small handful of the very earliest flags known which typically date to the War of 1812 or earlier. In particular, this flag shares many traits of construction and materials with a rare 13 Star American Flag that dates to the 1790s and flew over the Old Sandy Point Lighthouse in New York. That flag surfaced at auction in 2007 and was examined by flag scholars at the time and confirmed to be an early Federal Period flag. Its construction and materials were all consistent with circa 1790s flag making. The flag is now in the Zaricor Flag Collection, ZFC2497. Comparisons between IAS-00463 and ZFC2497 show strikingly similar materials and construction techniques, as seen in the photos below.

12 Star, 13 Stripe American Flag
circa 1789-1790 (IAS-00463)

13 Star, 13 Stripe American Flag, Old Sandy Point Lighthouse, circa 1789-1795 (ZFC2497)





Yet another interesting aspect of the twelve star flag is the fact that the maker left space to the left of the central row of stars for the addition of another star to bring the total to thirteen. This would make complete sense if the flag was made between November, 1789 and May, 1790, with the expectation that eventually Rhode Island (or another state) would become the thirteenth state. The pattern is clearly an approximation, minus the one star, of the prevalent 4-5-4 pattern of thirteen star flags which was most seen in depictions of thirteen star flags from the early days of the Republic. A modified image of the flag shown at the right shows the flag with the full complement of 13 stars. Given the size of the stars on the flag, and the space available, the flag maker could have fit another star but chose not to, making it more likely that the omission was intentional, rather than accidental.

A modified image of the flag with the 13th star added. (Note: The top-right star was taken and mirrored, verifying that the space is sufficient for stars of the same size as the current ones on the flag).

The linen of the stars is of fine quality for American manufacture in the 18th century. The linen threads are home spun and the plain weave of the linen is approximately fifty threads per inch, which is the range of the highest quality linens produced in the colonies and original states in the 18th century. Coarse linens in the range of sixteen threads per inch, mid-range linens of twenty-seven threads per inch, and higher quality linens of fifty threads per inch were all grades of linen woven in the American States in the 18th century. Linen of up to ninety threads per inch, the finest quality 18th century linen fabric for sheeting or shirting materials, was imported from Ireland.9

Note the irregular sized hand spun yarns and hand woven linen fabric of the stars.

The gauge of the linen star weave is about fifty threads per inch, the finest quality
woven in 18th Century America.

The stars are a fine linen weave, while the hoist is a coarse linen weave. Note the similar sheen and coloration of the fabric. It is possible the linen is from the same weaver, just two different gauges. (Photo taken with flash)

All indications from the flag's construction and materials, as well as its star pattern and number of stars, is that the flag dates to the very first thirteen months of the United States of America as a nation under the Constitution. The flag would have been correct, for the number of stars corresponding to the number of states under the Federal Government, during the first term of George Washington's presidency, following the ratification of the Constitution by North Carolina but before the ratification of the Constitution by Rhode Island.


1 Rhode Island State Government Website, U.S. Constitution Timeline

2 Wikipedia Timeline of the Drafting and Ratification of the United States Constitution

3 https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/u-s-constitution-ratified

4 Massachusetts Centinel, March 14; also Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser, March 13, 1789.

5 The United States Chronicle, March 3, 1789.

6 "At the first convention in North Carolina the Constitution was not ratified; but at a second convention held in November, 1789, it was adopted by a majority more than two to one, the vote being one hundred and ninety-three in the affirmative and seventy-five in the negative. [The official journal gives the vote 194 to 77.] The Legislature of Rhode Island, during the session in September, had sent an address to 'The President, the Senate, and the House of Representatives of the Eleven United States of America in Congress assembled,' in which were contained explanations of the course pursued by the State in not adopting the Constitution." – (Sparks's Washington, vol. x., p. 67.)

7 History of the Centennial celebration of the inauguration of George Washington as first President of the United States, by Clarence Brown Winthrop, published by D. Appleton, New York, 1892, p. 4.

8 The Historic Bridges of Philadelphia, An Address Delivered Before the City History Society of Philadelphia on Wednesday, October 12th, 1910, Frederick Perry Powers, published by The Society, January 1914, pp. 285-286.

9 The Material World of Cloth: Production and Use in Eighteenth-Century Rural Pennsylvania, by Adrienne D. Hood, The William and Mary Quarterly, Material Culture in Early America, Vol. 53, No. 1, Jan., 1996, published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, p. 56.

Learn more about the fabrics used in early American flags. Star Count: 12

Date: November 27, 1789 to May 29, 1790

Era: Federal Era

Statehood: North Carolina

Construction: Linen Host, Linen Stars and Wool Bunting Stripes

Catalog Number: IAS-00463


45 Stars, Homemade

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