14 June is Flag Day in the United States

 

A Cover A Day #33: U.S. Patriotism, Part 1

 

I am a patriot.

Despite being an expatriate, living in southern Thailand for the past 16 years, I still hold the nation of my birth — the United States of America — in high regard.

I am more of a fan of her history and have spent much of my life studying it. I have a familial link to the very foundations of the nation with distant ancestors arriving in North America late in the 16th century.

There were several members of my family who fought in the American Revolution including one who rose to the position of the Continental Army’s Chief Forager. He went on to become one of the first mayors of Alexandria, Virginia, and was the only non-Mason pall-bearer at George Washington’s funeral.

Thus, I have some personal reasons for continuing to wave the flag from afar. Not only on Flag Day but every day.

United States Scott #1509, first day cover and insert by Cover Craft Cachets, 8 December 1973

As a philatelic form of flag-waving, I plan to post several covers between now and Independence Day (4 July) portraying historic U.S. flags and other patriotic symbols. I will also do the same with postcards on the Postcards to Phuket blog.

This first installment features the rather common stamp issued on 8 December 1973 portraying crossed 50-star and 13-star U.S. flags (Scott #1509). Printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing using the Multicolor Huck Press with perforations measuring 11 x 10 ½, the first day city was San Francisco, California. A coil version of this stamp was also released (Scott #1519). Millions were printed of each although the exact quantity was unknown. When I began stamp collecting around this time, this was one of the most-seen stamps on U.S. mail.

Flag Day commemorates the Flag Resolution passed by the Second Continental Congress on 14 June 1777. This stated:

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 1777 resolution was most probably meant to define a naval ensign. In the late 18th century, the notion of a national flag did not yet exist, or was only nascent. The flag resolution appears between other resolutions from the Marine Committee. On 10 May 1779, Secretary of the Board of War Richard Peters expressed concern “it is not yet settled what is the Standard of the United States.” However, the term “Standard” referred to a national standard for the Army of the United States. Each regiment was to carry the national standard in addition to its regimental standard. The national standard was not a reference to the national or naval flag.

The Flag Resolution did not specify any particular arrangement, number of points, nor orientation for the stars and the arrangement or whether the flag had to have seven red stripes and six white ones or vice versa. The appearance was up to the maker of the flag. Some flag makers arranged the stars into one big star, in a circle or in rows and some replaced a state’s star with its initial. One arrangement features 13 five-pointed stars arranged in a circle, with the stars arranged pointing outwards from the circle (as opposed to up), the so-called Betsy Ross flag. Experts have dated the earliest known example of this flag to be 1792 in a painting by John Trumbull.

While scholars still argue about this, tradition holds that the new flag was first hoisted in June 1777 by the Continental Army at the Middlebrook encampment.

A replica Grand Union Flag flying outside City Hall in San Francisco, California on 11 October 2008

The first official U.S. flag flown during battle was on August 3, 1777, at Fort Schuyler (Fort Stanwix) during the Siege of Fort Stanwix. Massachusetts reinforcements brought news of the adoption by Congress of the official flag to Fort Schuyler. Soldiers cut up their shirts to make the white stripes; scarlet material to form the red was secured from red flannel petticoats of officers’ wives, while material for the blue union was secured from Capt. Abraham Swartwout’s blue cloth coat. A voucher is extant that Capt. Swartwout of Dutchess County was paid by Congress for his coat for the flag.

Despite the 1777 resolution, the early years of American independence featured many different flags. Most were individually crafted rather than mass-produced. While there are many examples of 13-star arrangements, some of those flags included blue stripes as well as red and white. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, in a letter dated 3 October 1778, to Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies, described the American flag as consisting of “13 stripes, alternately red, white, and blue, a small square in the upper angle, next to the flagstaff, is a blue field, with 13 white stars, denoting a new Constellation.”

John Paul Jones used a variety of 13-star flags on his U.S. Navy ships including the well-documented 1779 flags of the Serapis and the Alliance. The Serapis flag had three rows of eight-pointed stars with stripes that were red, white, and blue. The flag for the Alliance, however, had five rows of eight-pointed stars with 13 red and white stripes, and the white stripes were on the outer edges. Both flags were documented by the Dutch government in October 1779, making them two of the earliest known flags of 13 stars.

A well-known forerunner of the “Stars and Stripes” design was the Grand Union Flag, first flown on 3 December 1775 and considered to be the first national flag of the United States of America. Like the current U.S. flag, the Grand Union Flag has 13 alternating red and white stripes, representative of the Thirteen Colonies. The upper inner corner, or canton, featured the flag of the Kingdom of Great Britain, of which the colonies had been subjects.

This flag was meant to represent the Congress and the United Colonies with a banner distinct from the British Red Ensign flown from civilian and merchant vessels, the White Ensign of the British Royal Navy, and the Flag of Great Britain carried on land by the British army. The emerging states had been using their own independent flags, with Massachusetts using the Taunton Flag, and New York using the George Rex Flag, prior to the adoption of united colors.

Americans first hoisted the Colors on the colonial warship Alfred, in the harbor on the western shore of the Delaware River at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 3 December 1775, by newly appointed Lieutenant John Paul Jones of the formative Continental Navy. The event had been documented in letters to Congress and in eyewitness accounts. The flag was used by the Continental Army forces as both a naval ensign and garrison flag throughout 1776 and early 1777. The Grand Union became obsolete following the passing of the Flag Act of 1777.

A replica of the Hopkinson 13-star flag flies over the site of the 1777-1778 encampment of the Continental Army at Brandywine Park in New Castle County, Delaware, on 14 June 2013

Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey, a naval flag designer, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, designed the 1777 flag while he was the Chairman of the Continental Navy Board’s Middle Department, sometime between his appointment to that position in November 1776 and the time that the flag resolution was adopted in June 1777. Apparently, Hopkinson was not paid for his work for on 25 May 1780 he wrote a letter to Congress, via the Continental Board of Admiralty, asking for a “Quarter Cask of the Public Wine” as payment for designing the U.S. flag, the seal for the Admiralty Board, the seal for the Treasury Board, Continental currency, the Great Seal of the United States, and other devices. His design was for a Naval flag had seven red stripes and six white ones. The predominance of red stripes made the naval flag more visible against the sky on a ship at sea. By contrast, Hopkinson’s flag for the United States had seven white stripes, and six red ones – in reality, six red stripes laid on a white background. This contradicts the legend of the Betsy Ross flag, which suggests that she sewed the first Stars and Stripes flag by request of the government in the Spring of 1776.

Though most historians dismiss the story, Ross family tradition holds that General George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and two members of a congressional committee — Robert Morris and George Ross — visited Mrs. Ross in 1776. Mrs. Ross convinced George Washington to change the shape of the stars in a sketch of a flag he showed her from six-pointed to five-pointed by demonstrating that it was easier and speedier to cut the latter. However, there is no archival evidence or other recorded verbal tradition to substantiate this story of the first American flag. It appears that the story first surfaced in the writings of her grandson in the 1870s (a century after the fact), with no mention or documentation in earlier decades.

Painting depicting the story of Betsy Ross presenting the first American flag to General George Washington, by Edward Percy Moran, c. 1917

Ross made flags for the Pennsylvania navy during the American Revolution. After the Revolution, she made U.S. flags for over 50 years, including 50 garrison flags for the U.S. Arsenal on the Schuylkill River during 1811. The flags of the Pennsylvania navy were overseen by the Pennsylvania Navy Board. The board reported to the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly’s Committee of Safety. In July 1775, the President of the Committee of Safety was Benjamin Franklin. Its members included Robert Morris and George Ross. At that time, the committee ordered the construction of gunboats that would eventually need flags as part of their equipment. As late as October 1776, Captain William Richards was still writing to the Committee or Council of Safety to request the design that he could use to order flags for their fleet.

Ross was one of those hired to make flags for the Pennsylvania fleet. An entry dated 29 May 1777, in the records of the Pennsylvania Navy Board includes an order to pay her for her work. It is worded as follows:

An order on William Webb to Elizabeth
Ross for fourteen pounds twelve shillings and two
pence for Making Ships Colours [etc.] put into William
Richards store……………………………………….£14.12.2

The Pennsylvania navy’s ship color included (1) an ensign; (2) a long, narrow pennant; and (3) a short, narrow pennant. The ensign was a blue flag with 13 stripes — seven red stripes and six white stripes in the flag’s canton (upper-left-hand corner). It was flown from a pole at the rear of the ship. The long pennant had 13 vertical, red-and-white stripes near the mast; the rest was solid red. It flew from the top of the ship’s mainmast, the center pole holding the sails. The short pennant was solid red, and flew from the top of the ship’s mizzenmast — the pole holding the ship’s sails nearest the stern (rear of the ship).

Research conducted by the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. notes that the story of Betsy Ross making the first American flag for General George Washington entered into American consciousness about the time of the 1876 centennial celebrations, with the Centennial Exposition then scheduled to be held in Philadelphia. In 1870, Ross’s grandson, William J. Canby, presented a research paper to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in which he claimed that his grandmother had “made with her hands the first flag” of the United States. Canby said he first obtained this information from his aunt Clarissa Sydney (Claypoole) Wilson in 1857, 20 years after Ross’s death. Canby dates the historic episode based on Washington’s journey to Philadelphia, in the late spring of 1776, a year before the Second Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act of 1777.

In the 2008 book The Star-Spangled Banner: the Making of an American Icon, Smithsonian Institution experts point out that Canby’s recounting of the event appealed to patriotic Americans then eager for stories about the Revolution and its heroes and heroines. Betsy Ross was promoted as a patriotic role model for young girls and a symbol of women’s contributions to American history. American historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich further explored this line of enquiry in a 2007 article, “How Betsy Ross Became Famous: Oral Tradition, Nationalism, and the Invention of History”.

Ross was merely one of several flag makers in Philadelphia. Another was Rebecca (Flower) Young who is historically documented to have made the earlier Grand Union Flag for the Continental Army, along with many other ships’ colors, banners, and flags which were advertised in local newspapers. Young’s name appears in the logs of the commissary general for making “Continental Standards” as early as 1781, making her one of the earlier verified makers of the Flag of the United States. In addition to flags, she was also paid for making blankets and drum cases between the years of 1780 and 1785. In 1781, Young ran an ad in the Pennsylvania Packet advertising “all kinds of colors for the Army and Navy.” She also sewed the standard for the First American Regiment under Colonel Josiah Harmar.

Flag made by Mary Young Pickersgill that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814, photographed in 1873 in the Boston Navy Yard by George Henry Preble.

Rebecca Young’s daughter Mary Young Pickersgill (1776–1857) made the flag of 15 stars and stripes in 1813 delivered to the commander of the Frt McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland. Pickersgill received a government-issued receipt for the work of two flags, a large 30 by 42 foot (9.1 by 12.8 m) “garrison flag” and a smaller “storm flag”). Available documentation shows that this flag was sewn at a cost of $405.90 (equivalent to $5,443 in 2020). George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry, had specified “a flag so large that the British would have no difficulty seeing it from a distance”. This was the flag seen by Francis Scott Key during the British attack of September 12–14, 1814, inspiring him to write the poem which later became the national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.

Pickersgill’s small 1793 rowhouse is still preserved in East Baltimore’s Old Town neighborhood at East Pratt and Albemarle Streets and is known as the “Flag House & Star-Spangled Banner Museum”. This was where the flag began to be sewed with her daughter Caroline along with house staff, finishing on the floor of a nearby Johnson’s/Claggett’s Brewery on Front Street, and delivered to Major George Armistead at Fort McHenry in 1813.

Occasionally over the decades, there has been some controversy and disagreement between the relative merits and historical accuracies of the two flag-making traditions and historical sites in Philadelphia and Baltimore. It is thought that Ross’s only contribution to the flag design was to change the 6-pointed stars to the easier 5-pointed stars. Scholars, however, accept the claim by Francis Hopkinson—a member of the Continental Congress who designed most of the elements of the Great Seal of the United States — that he created designs for the early American flag. 

Poster commemorating the 140th Flag Day on 14 June 1917

Perhaps the oldest continuing Flag Day parade is in Fairfield, Washington. Beginning in 1909 or 1910, Fairfield has held a parade every year since, with the possible exception of 1918, and celebrated the “Centennial” parade in 2010, along with some other commemorative events. 

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation that officially established June 14 as Flag Day. On 14 June 1937, Pennsylvania became the first U.S. state to celebrate Flag Day as a state holiday, beginning in the town of Rennerdale. New York Statutes designate the second Sunday in June as Flag Day, a state holiday.

On 3 August 1949, National Flag Day was established by an Act of Congress. Flag Day is not an official federal holiday. Title 36 of the United States Code, Subtitle I, Part A, CHAPTER 1, § 110 is the official statute on Flag Day; however, it is at the president’s discretion to officially proclaim the observance. 

The week of June 14 (June 13–19 in 2021) is designated as “National Flag Week.” During National Flag Week, the president issues a proclamation “urging the people to observe the day as the anniversary of the adoption on June 14, 1777, by the Continental Congress of the Stars and Stripes as the official flag of the United States of America.” The flag should also be displayed on all government buildings. Some organizations, such as the town of Quincy, Massachusetts, hold parades and events in celebration of America’s national flag and everything it represents.

The National Flag Day Foundation holds an annual observance for Flag Day on the second Sunday in June including a ceremonial raising of the national flag, the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the singing of the national anthem, a parade and other events. The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House in Baltimore, Maryland, birthplace of the 1813 flag that inspired Francis Scott Key (1779–1843) to pen his famous poem a year later, has celebrated Flag Day since 1927. In that year, a museum was created in the home of flag-banner-pennant maker Mary Pickersgill on the historic property. The Betsy Ross House has long been the site of Philadelphia’s observance of Flag Day.

Many of the historic flags of the United States, including some of those used by various regiments during the Revolutionary War prior to the establishment of the nation, have been depicted on stamps. Over the next three weeks, I will post covers of some of those that I hold in my personal collection. I hope you enjoy seeing some of the lesser-known and famous flags from my country’s history.

 

 

 

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