Happy Flag Day

On this day in history, June 14, 1777, the first American flag is officially adopted by Congress. The Flag Act of 1777 specified that the new American flag would have “thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.”

There is much controversy about who actually designed the flag. The two main candidates are Francis Hopkinson, a New Jersey signer of the Declaration of Independence, who was on the Naval Board at the time, and Betsy Ross. Both stories are unconfirmed though and have points that speak for their truth and against them.

Hopkinson submitted a bill to Congress for “creating the new US flag.” The bill, however, was denied by Congress. Later Hopkinson changed the bill and asked for payment for creating the new US Navy flag. Were there two separate flags, one for the Navy and one for the Army? Some evidence suggests this. Hopkinson was also an artist and an expert in heraldry (flag design). In spite of this, there is no evidence of any drawings Hopkinson submitted to Congress.

The Betsy Ross flag story is more well-known. Again, though, there is no contemporary evidence for the story. The story comes entirely from Betsy’s grandson William Canby, and a few other relatives, all of whom stated many years after her death that they heard Betsy tell the story from her own mouth.

This legend goes that George Washington, George Ross (Betsy’s late husband’s uncle) and Robert Morris approached her secretly in May or June of 1776 and asked her to make the flag. Circumstantial evidence supports the story. Betsy and George Washington sat in pews next to each other at church and Washington was known to visit Betsy socially and professionally, using her tailoring services. George Ross was a family member who had been in Congress. Due to lack of concrete evidence, however, we will never know for sure who designed the first American flag.

The Flag Act of 1777 did not specify the pattern for the stars, the number of points on the stars, the width of the stripes or the canton (the blue field) or whether a white or red stripe should be first. This caused a proliferation of flag designs with the stars especially being in many different patterns.

The Flag Act of 1794 added two stars and stripes for the new states of Vermont and Kentucky. This was the only official United States flag to ever have 15 stripes. The Star Spangled Banner Flag of Francis Scott Key fame was made in this design, but again, the 1794 act did not specify the pattern of the stars.

The Flag Act of 1818 finally determined that the stripes would remain at 13 for the original colonies. It also added five stars, bringing them to 20, for recently inducted states. This act also set the rule that a new star would be added for each new state to be added. The new star would be added on the July 4th after the state was added to the Union. June 14 is celebrated across America as Flag Day in honor of the adoption of the first official US Flag.


Confession: I’m a little bit of a nerd on this. Not saying I’m smart, just passionate.

Betsy Ross never claimed to design a flag. The family legend, as presented 100 years later by her grandson, merely claimed that she sewed one of the first official flags, and that she came up with the idea for 5-pointed stars because she knew how to cut them. If you look at the flag code passed by the Marine Committee on this date in 1777, you’ll notice there’s no mention of how many points the stars must have, nor how they are to be arranged.

In fact, this is still true. Although we have 50 stars now, they can be arranged in any pattern and can have any number of points. The U.S. Navy regulates the “official” versions of the flag with minute details, but you can create any flag of any size and it still meets the Congressionally defined standards, so long as it has 13 alternating red & white stripes and 50 white stars on a blue canton.

Francis Hopkinson claimed to have designed the first flag, and he likely did have a hand in it. He designed a lot of things for the young United States. But the design of the flag seems to have grown organically in the original 13 states, and many people agree that the Flag Resolution was more a description of existing designs rather than a completely new concept. Hopkinson was never compensated, because Congress determined that many other people had a hand in the design.

In short, we can’t honestly name a single person or even a group of people who designed or manufactured the first flag. Like our Independence or our Constitution, a lot of people had a hand in it. We don’t even know what the “first” flag looked like, or when it was created. But today is the day we celebrate the official recognition of the flag by a committee in Congress.