“Resolved, that the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes alternate red and white: that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
The thirteen stars and stripes represented the thirteen colonies that declared independence the year before from the Kingdom of Great Britain. These thirteen colonies, including North Carolina, went on to become the first states of our new nation.
North Carolina’s delegates voting that Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia were Thomas Burke (for whom Burke County is named), Cornelius Harnett (for whom Harnett County is named), William Hooper, and John Penn (for whom the USS John Penn was named and the first historical highway marker erected by the State of North Carolina was dedicated). Tradition holds that the nation’s new flag was first hoisted in June 1777 by the Continental Army at the Middlebrook encampment in New Jersey during the Revolutionary War; the event is commemorated each year, and by special order of Congress, a traditional thirteen star flag is flown 24 hours a day at the site.
The Continental Congress’s resolution, which had been initially drafted and referred by the Marine Committee, gave no specific instruction as to how many points the stars should have, nor how the stars should be arranged. This led to varying designs at the time: some flags had stars scattered on the blue field, some had the stars arranged in rows, and some in a circle. Some stars had five or six points, while others had eight.
No federal law or executive order exists which provides an official meaning for the flag’s colors. The closest thing we have is the contemporary account of Charles Thomson (the recording secretary of the Continental Congress) who describes the colors, the same that were being used in the design of the the Great Seal of the United States: “White signifies purity and innocence. Red hardiness and valour and Blue . . . signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice.”
A simpler explanation for why the colors of the new American flag were chosen is that it was modeled after the first unofficial flag of the thirteen colonies, the Grand Union Flag (also known as the Continental Colors, the Congress Flag, and the Cambridge Flag). These were the same colors used in the British Kingdom’s flag, which was adopted in 1707.
Who actually designed our nation’s flag has been open to some speculation. As every child probably knows, a Philadelphia upholsterer named Elizabeth Claypoole (now known as Betsy Ross) is often credited with producing the first flag.
According to the story, General George Washington, who was always a good customer before he took command of the Continental Army, appeared on Mrs. Ross’s doorstep one day in June 1776 with two representatives of Congress, Colonel Ross and Robert Morris. They asked her if she would make them a new flag based on their own crude sketch; Mrs. Ross, so the story goes, suggested some improvements and Washington redrew the design and she began her famous work on the Stars and Stripes.
The tale first entered into popular culture in in 1870, 94 years after the event supposedly took place, in a paper presented to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania by her only surviving grandson, William J. Canby. An 1893 painting by the enterprising artist Charles H. Weisgerber showing Betsey Ross in her parlor with Washington, Ross, and Morris helped perpetuate the legend. But because of the lack of any historical evidence (letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, bills of sale, etc.) supporting the claim, most historians are now fairly confident that she neither designed nor sewed the first flag. In fact, there is no evidence at all that George Washington had ever even heard of Betsy Ross.
Although not as well known, there is strong evidence that Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey, actually designed the flag. At the time the resolution was adopted by the Continental Congress, Hopkinson — who was also an amateur musician — helped design other symbols for the new government, including the Great Seal. (For his services, Hopkinson submitted a letter to the Continental Admiralty Board asking “whether a Quarter Cask of the public Wine will not be a proper & reasonable Reward for these Labours of Fancy and a suitable Encouragement to future Exertions of a like Nature.” The Continental Congress turned down Mr. Hopkinson’s request.)
The first official celebration of Flag Day was held in 1877 on the 100th anniversary of the Flag Resolution of 1777 — although the first annual recognition of the flag’s birthday dates back to 1885 when Bernard J. CiGrand, a 19 year-old teacher from Wisconsin, first organized a group of school children to observe June 14 as the flag’s birthday. And just a few years later, the efforts of a kindergarten teacher in New York City, George Balch, led to the formal observance of Flag Day by the New York State Board of Education.
Patriotic groups spent years trying to convince Congress to officially mark Flag Day; the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia first began holding an annual Flag Day celebration in 1891 and has been formally celebrating Flag Day every year since. Although many state and local governments adopted the annual observance, for over 30 years Flag Day remained a state and local celebration.
Inspired by these local efforts, President Woodrow Wilson signed a presidential proclamation in 1916 recognizing Flag Day, and in 1949, President Harry Truman signed House Joint Resolution 170 marking June 14 as “National Flag Day.”
Today’s flag consists of the same original thirteen stripes, but the blue field now contains fifty stars, representing each of the fifty states that compose the United States of America. For most Americans, the “Grand Old Flag” still remains an enduring symbol of our Republic’s founding principles of freedom, justice, private property rights, and limited government.
The United States Flag Code formalizes and unifies the traditional ways in which we give respect to the flag:
When displaying the flag:
- Display the U.S. flag from sunrise to sunset on buildings and stationary flagstaffs in the open. When a patriotic effect is desired the flag may be displayed 24-hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.
- When placed on a single staff or lanyard, place the U.S. Flag above all other flags.
- When flags are displayed in a row, the U.S. flag goes to the observer’s left. Flags of other nations are flown at same height. State and local flags are traditionally flown lower.
- When used during a marching ceremony or parade with other flags, the U.S. Flag will be to the observer’s left.
- On special days, the flag may be flown at half-staff. On Memorial Day it is flown at half-staff until noon and then raised.
- When flown at half-staff, should be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. The flag should be again raised to the peak before it is lowered for the day. By “half-staff” is meant lowering the flag to one-half the distance between the top and bottom of the staff. Crepe streamers may be affixed to spear heads or flagstaffs in a parade only by order of the President of the United States.
- When the flag is displayed over the middle of the street, it should be suspended vertically with the union (blue field of stars) to the north in an east and west street or to the east in a north and south street.
- When the flag is displayed in a manner other than by being flown from a staff, it should be displayed flat, whether indoors or out. When displayed either horizontally or vertically against a wall, the union (blue field of stars) should be uppermost and to the flag’s own right, that is, to the observer’s left. When displayed in a window it should be displayed in the same way — with the union or blue field to the left of the observer in the street.
- When the flag is displayed on a car, the staff shall be fixed firmly to the chassis or clamped to the right fender.
- When the flag is used to cover a casket, it should be so placed that the union is at the head and over the left shoulder. The flag should not be lowered into the grave or allowed to touch the ground.
When saluting the flag do the following:
- All persons present in uniform (military, police, fire, etc.) should render the military salute. Members of the armed forces and veterans who are present but not in uniform may render the military salute.
- All other persons present should face the flag and stand at attention with their right hand over the heart, or if applicable, remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart.
Quick list of Flag Etiquette Don’ts:
- Don’t dip the U.S. Flag for any person, flag, or vessel.
- Don’t let the flag touch the ground.
- Don’t fly flag upside down unless there is an emergency.
- Don’t carry the flag flat, or carry things in it.
- Don’t use the flag as clothing.
- Don’t store the flag where it can get dirty.
- Don’t use it as a cover.
- Don’t fasten it or tie it back. Always allow it to fall free.
- Don’t draw on, or otherwise mark the flag.
- Don’t use the flag for decoration. Use bunting with the blue on top, then white, then red.