A Brief History of the American Flag

June 14 is celebrated as Flag Day. On that day in 1777, the Continental Congress approved the stars-and-stripes design for the official American flag. Seeking a flag that would identify American vessels and serve as a symbol of unity, the Continental Congress “[r]esolved: that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a constellation.”

On April 4, 1818, Congress established that the field of blue should hold one star for every state in the Union. The design with seven red and six white stripes also was made official. On July 4, 1960, when Hawaii became a state, the 50th (and, to this point, final) star was added to the field of blue.

In the mid-1800s, the War Between the States hastened the flag’s evolution from a means by which to identify a ship’s registry to a symbol of national pride. As tensions mounted between North and South in January 1861, a clerk in New Orleans received a telegram from Treasury Secretary John Dix reading: “If anyone attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot.” Political cartoonists of the day often portrayed the fair maiden Liberty as draped in a flag, and Flag Day was first celebrated nationally in that year.

Meanwhile in South Carolina, Union efforts to keep the U.S. flag flying over Fort Sumter failed, and on April 14, 1861, the Confederate flag replaced it. On April 21, 1862, Confederates burned the American flag in Memphis. They danced on it at Murfreesboro, Tenn., during Christmas that same year. Throughout the war, Union soldiers sang “We’ll rally ‘round the flag, boys, we’ll rally once again” as a way to keep their spirits up.

After the Civil War, westward expansion continued, and the number of stars in the American flag’s field of blue increased. In 1869, the flag with 37 stars was the first U.S. flag to appear on an American postage stamp.

As America industrialized, American manufacturers began to distribute their goods to the entire nation. At the same time, the technology of color lithography advanced. Colorful trade cards, precursors to the inserts found in modern magazines, were placed in packages at the factory or mailed to prospective customers. Uncle Sam, the Statue of Liberty (erected in 1886), the Brooklyn Bridge (opened in 1883) and the flag became the most visible symbols of the nation.

On Oct. 12, 1892, Francis Bellamy’s “Pledge of Allegiance” was published in The Youth’s Companion. It appeared during a time when many groups, including the American Flag Association, Grand Army of the Republic and Sons of the American Revolution, felt that the flag was being prostituted for commercial gain. The belief that the flag should be honored and protected from desecration was expressed at the time by Mrs. John Hume, chairwoman of the Daughters of the American Revolution, who declared: “What the cross is to our church, the flag is to our country.”

What had changed in the five decades between 1850 and 1900? Commerce and technology had proliferated. The more the nation industrialized, the more the new medium of advertising flourished. There were no laws or restrictions, no prescribed etiquette for use of the flag in this new context. In Chicago alone, the image of the flag was turned to more than 120 types of commercial purposes, including brewery advertisements, burlesque shows and as decoration on belts, toilet paper and whiskey barrels, according to an 1895 pamphlet.

In 1897 the American Flag Association was established to promote flag-protection legislation. After 1897, many states followed Pennsylvania’s lead in passing laws to make it a crime “to damage or destroy” the flag.

With the new century came another major conflict; World War I inspired renewed patriotic fervor in the United States. Joining Old Glory on the flagpole were the French Tricolor and the British Union Jack, the flags of America’s allies.

“Allies Day, May 1917” by Childe Hassam.

It was during WWI that the first American flag was burned in an act of protest. In 1917, Congress responded to wartime passions by making the public mutilation of a flag a misdemeanor in the District of Columbia. Various groups believed citizens needed to know how to honor the flag and sought a civilian flag code. In 1922, the American Legion drafted its flag code.

In 1942, after the United States entered World War II, Congress passed a joint resolution summarizing the rules for display of the U.S. flag.  According to Sec. 176, Respect for flag: “The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”

The civil rights movement and Vietnam-era protests brought the flag’s symbolic value increased public attention. In March 1966 at Purdue University in Indiana, a guest speaker tore, spat and trampled on the flag during a meeting of the Students for Democratic Society. The nearby state of Illinois responded with a new flag-desecration law, increasing the penalty from a maximum of $10 to a $1,000 fine plus one year in jail. It was during this period that Rufus Hinton, Sidney Street and Gregory Lee Johnson added their names to the list of those whose speech and actions involving the flag would take them to the Supreme Court.

Since the 1989 Supreme Court decision in Texas v. Johnson, organizations have petitioned Congress to pass a constitutional amendment protecting the flag. Although Congress passed the Flag Protection Act in 1989, many did not consider it sufficiently strong. For that reason, flag-protection amendments to the U.S. Constitution have regularly been presented in Congress — and even passed in the House of Representatives — since then. In 1995, the House voted 312-120 for a flag amendment, but the amendment failed by three votes in the Senate. In 2000, the next time the flag protection measure was considered by the Senate, the constitutional amendment failed to secure the required two-thirds vote (67 votes if all senators are present and voting), and ended up with the same 63 votes as in 1995.

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