The Changing Symbolism of Old Glory

The American flag is enjoying a new popularity since the tragic attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Annin & Co., the nation’s largest and oldest flag-maker, reports that sales are still 25 percent above normal as Americans continue to fly the Stars and Stripes from their front porches and cars.

Grandiose public displays of the Red, White, and Blue are also in fashion. The World Series in New York, the Super Bowl in New Orleans, and the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City all boasted large demonstrations of patriotic pageantry. What once might have been regarded as routine ceremony or a jingoistic display is now considered critical to the healing of a nation that has for too long emphasized its social diversity over its unity.

Flag Day, which we celebrate on June 14, reminds us that we began our history as a people dedicated to the rights of mankind, regardless of religious or ethnic origin. Although the United States has often wavered from that commitment, the tragic events of Sept. 11 compel us to return to it, more today than ever before.

Few Americans, however, understand how our flag originated, because its history is shrouded in two centuries of myth spun from oral tradition and patriotic folklore. Two hundred and twenty-five years ago, Congress adopted a resolution that the “flag of the United States be thirteen stripes alternate red and white and the union be thirteen stars in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” Legend holds that Francis Hopkinson, a New Jersey congressman and signer of the Declaration of Independence, designed the first flag and that Betsy Ross of Philadelphia sewed the first one in June 1776 at the request of George Washington. But neither of these points is certain. 

What we do know is that the United States was a fledgling nation then, trying to assert its independence from a more powerful British empire. Washington, then commander of the Continental Army, wanted to replace the first American flag, known as the Great Union Flag (seven red and six white stripes with the British Union Jack in the upper left corner) so that the Redcoats would not misinterpret it as a sign of American submission to the crown. Allegedly, he asked for a new banner that retained the seven red and six white stripes but replaced the British Union Jack with thirteen white stars on a blue ground. Ross suggested the circular arrangement of the stars.

No one knows with absolute certainty the symbolism of the design. While the thirteen stripes and thirteen stars represented the thirteen original states, some say the circular arrangement of the stars indicated the equality of the states. Others claim that the circle represented the hope that the Union would be without end. With the addition of new states after 1776, the stars became staggered in rows.

But the Stars and Stripes were not always popular. During the early twentieth century, Old Glory was viewed as a symbol of imperialism by smaller, underdeveloped nations in the Caribbean and South America. There, the United States impeded nationalist movements and established lucrative markets while playing the role of a benevolent international policeman.

By 1949, when President Truman signed an act of Congress making June 14 of each year “National Flag Day,” the United States had embarked on the Cold War, aimed at resisting communism abroad. It lasted forty years.

“Red, White and Blue” became the colors of a good neighbor for some but represented the ugly American bully for others. Even at home the flag evoked mixed emotions. While the World War II generation revered Old Glory, it was sometimes burned by their children who opposed the Vietnam conflict.

Today the threat of international terrorism has once again united us as a people. How our government responds to that threat in the coming years will determine how Old Glory is viewed in the future, both at home and abroad.

Our flag, like the flag of any nation, can only be as respected as the policies of the government it represents. The Stars and Stripes will continue to remind us all that freedom demands eternal vigilance and accountability if we are to prevent another national tragedy like that which occurred last Sept. 11.

William C. Kashatus's is a writer for the History News Service. His most recent book is "Money Pitcher: The Tragedy of Indian Assimilation."

June, 2002