Today, June 14, is Flag Day in the United States of America. The established date was well-chosen. Our founding fathers, in all their wisdom, voting as part of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, chose to adopt the first version of the Flag we fly today on June 14, 1777. They passed a resolution stating that “the Flag of the United States be 13 stripes, alternate red and white,” and that “the union be 13 stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” As elementary students, most of us became familiar with the name of Betsy Ross who is credited with the production of that first Flag. She was a trained upholsterer, not a seamstress. The 8th of 17 children in the Quaker Griscom family, her personal story has been handed down by her family’s descendants and sometimes not confirmed. It is known that she was widowed at age 24 when her husband, John Ross, not a Quaker, died. She married again, but was widowed once more, at age 30.
Most textbook stories connected to the history of the Flag itself are a matter of record. The 13 red and white stripes represented the 13 original British colonies. Except for a short time after two new states entered the Union and two stripes were added (temporarily), the number of stripes, 13, has remained unchanged. The circle of 13 white stars on a blue background also represented the colonies, the circle denoting that no one colony would be above another. It was on this part of the Flag that changes were noted as more states joined the Union and more stars were added. Because more states were joining over the decades, there have been 27 versions of the Flag.
The Flag was the inspiration for the lyrics of what became “The Star-Spangled Banner,” our National Anthem. It was written on September 14, 1814, by lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key after he witnessed the Flag flying triumphantly above Fort McHenry following the bombardment of Baltimore during the War of 1812. (Strangely, the Flag that Bellamy saw had 15 stripes, having added two states. This was just before Congress changed the number back to 13.) “Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight … were so gallantly streaming.” We learned those words before we ever had a history lesson. And we tried to learn the melody, always happy to belt out those last words, “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” And often we hear “Play Ball” immediately afterwards!
A pledge of allegiance to the flag was first published in 1892 by a socialist minister, Francis Bellamy, who revised an earlier pledge by Captain Balch, a Union officer. Slight changes were made in 1923, and in 1954, the words “under God” were added at the urging of President Dwight Eisenhower. The pledge that I learned in the 1940s did not contain those words. In fact, I’m not sure that I understood what that big word “allegiance” meant. I sometimes wonder if children and adults today understand its meaning, and if “patriotism” still means what it meant then.
Flag Day has been around for a while. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation establishing June 14 as Flag Day, but it was not until 1949 that National Flag Day was established by an Act of Congress. Later, the celebration was expanded to a full week, National Flag Week. Lazy me, once I place my Flag in its bracket around June 14, I leave it up until after July 4th. (I know, it’s supposed to be lighted.)
It saddens me that controversy often surrounds our Flag, but such is the way we operate today. It is true that many very bad things … and many very good things … have happened under this Flag, some because of our allegiance, and some in spite of it. The rub lies in our differing definitions of good and bad.
For whatever reasons we might fly our Flag this week, I hope we can find common ground in honoring the original intent. And lest we forget, the final words are as important today as they ever were … “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”