Adding the Stars and the Stripes

Happy Independence Day! We’ve made it a tradition to begin flying a historic American flag on each July 4th. In 2018, it was the “Betsy Ross” flag. Last year it was the Bennington Flag. This year we’re flying the only American Flag to have anything other than 13 stripes.

The original United States Flag act was passed on 14 June 1777 and established the familiar 13-stars and 13-stripes that are still recognizable today.

But then, Vermont joined the Union as the fourteenth state in 1791 and Kentucky followed suit the following year. Two years later, the United States changed its flag for the first time, adding both a star and a stripe for each of the new states.

That from and after the first day of May, Anno Domini, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-five, the flag of the United States, be fifteen stripes alternate red and white. That the Union be fifteen stars, white in a blue field.

The United States Flag Act of 1794
https://images.dailykos.com/images/270502/story_image/Star_Spangled_Banner_Flag_on_display_at_the_Smithsonian's_National_Museum_of_History_and_Technology__around_1964.jpg?1467684539

But this flag is notable for more than merely the number of stripes. Also known as the “Great Garrison Flag,” it is this version of the American flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812.

It was seeing this flag both before and after that battle that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem Defence of Fort M’Henry which, when sung to the tune of To Anacreon in Heaven became our national anthem in 1931. And that gave this flag its far more famous name, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” If you’d thought Vermont and Kentucky waited a long time to be included on the U. S. Flag, the flag wasn’t changed again for another 24 years.

In the meantime, Tennessee (1796), Ohio (1803), Louisiana (1812), Indiana (1816), and Mississippi (1817) had joined the union. Tennessee had to wait for nearly a quarter-century for their star to officially be added. That seems strange to me. For Vermont and Kentucky, there was an existing national flag with established symbolism. Now the precedent of including new states had been established; the public responded with a variety of unofficial flags that added stars and frequently stripes, like this version with 17 stars and 17 stripes. It and an assortment of other flags from this time can be seen at the Zaricor Flag Collection.

You might be wondering what our flag would look like if we’d continued to add stripes as well as stars. So did Michael Orelove of the Portland Flag Association. He went a step further and had one made; it looks kind of cool. It’s interesting, but it’s very pinstripey. Joanne’s reaction was that it “messes with my astigmatism.” On the PFA blog, Scott Mainwaring points out that it would look pink from a distance. There are disadvantages, but in the era of printed flags, making such a flag is feasible. I can’t imagine trying to make such a thing by sewing red and white strips of cloth together.

It wasn’t until after the War of 1812, that the congress finally got serious about updating the flag when Peter Wendover, a representative from New York proposed forming an exploratory committee to find “an unessential variation” to the flag. He suffered the fate of many who proposed creating a committee; he was put in charge of it.

Wendover consulted Samuel Reid, “a privateer and naval hero of the War of 1812.” Reid was the first to propose maintaining 13 stripes on the flag. He designed three flags, a people’s flag with 20 stars in a “great star” pattern, a governmental flag for federal use, and a “Standard of the Union” for use at celebrations. Congress settled on the first version, with 20 stars and 13 stripes. Invoking the founders, Wendover argued, “In their memory, and to their honor, let us restore substantially the flag under which they conquered, and at the same time engraft into its figure the after-fruits of their toil.”

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 United States Flag Act of 1818

The 1818 Flag Act did two things that were smart. It limited the number of stripes to 13, and it established that the flag would change on July 4th after each new state joined the union. It remains in force today.

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