From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Sunday is Flag Day, so as we shake out our flags to display our patriotism, let’s take a moment to reflect on the role our nation’s early Sailors played on our flag’s history and give a nod to the flag’s naval DNA.
While many may know the name John Paul Jones in reference to our Navy history, you may not know the role he played in our flag’s history.
True of many of our nation’s first defenders, John Paul Jones was a man with many attributes. A Scotsman with an affinity for the French, who fought for liberty against the British, became part of our history on an American-built ship. John Paul Jones, a charming naval mercenary, garnered a lot of emotion: Cast as a hero by the media to landlubbers, castigated as a pirate by the British, disliked by his crew for his stern discipline, and noted by all for his propensity to self-promotion and pandering.
So it should come to no one’s surprise the first flag saluted as the flag of the United States was by the French on Jones’ Continental sloop, Ranger.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Back in 1775, most of the colonists, although peeved with the motherland over unfair taxes, still considered themselves British. As tensions rose, and anger turned into revolution, a young Continental Navy lieutenant, John Paul Jones, raised a flag on the American warship Alfred on Dec. 5, 1775. It was a mash-up of the British Union Jack flag and the Navy Jack.
Since there was no Instagram at the time and hence no photo evidence, scholars have differed as to whether it was the Navy Jack flag or the Grand Union flag (a favorite used by Gen. George Washington during those early days of the revolution) Jones hoisted into the top sail that day, but they were sure about one thing: It had stripes. The flag raised by Jones borrowed the red and white stripes from the naval ensign, but left off the rattlesnake with the motto “Don’t Tread On Me.” In the upper left corner was a smaller version of the British Union Jack.
It took a couple of years before the Continental Congress decided to create a flag that would unite its new nation under one flag. On June 14, 1777, Congress resolved “the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
There was no real direction on how to place the 13 stars, but the most famous variation is what is known as the Betsy Ross flag, with its 5-pointed stars in a circular pattern against the blue field.
With the creation of a new flag on June 14, 1777, coincidentally Jones was handed a new ship: the sloop Ranger. Built in America and commanded by the Scotsman, Ranger sailed to Europe later that year to harass the British fleet and its shipping lanes. Just days later after the Treaty of Alliance was signed with France, on Feb. 14, 1778, the French fleet saluted the Stars and Stripes flown by Jones’ sloop Ranger, acknowledging their acceptance of the United States of America and making the French the first to salute our country’s flag.
Our Flag as We Know it Today
For the 100th anniversary of the creation of the flag, it was flown over government buildings, and thus began that tradition. The flag’s proportions, however, weren’t standardized into what we see today until 1912 under President William Howard Taft after New Mexico and Arizona bumped the number up to 48.
The ratio for the flag itself was determined to be 1.0 for the hoist (the width or the height of the flag) compared to 1.9 for the fly (the length, which actually seems the width). He also determined how the stars in the field of blue would look and its spacing. That has been amended twice to add stars for Alaska (1959) and Hawaii (1960). It now takes 64 separate pieces of cloth to create Old Glory.
As for Flag Day, that came after decades of individuals, organizations and states beginning to recognize the flag’s birthday. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed on May 30, 1916, the official celebration of the flag resolution would be called Flag Day.
President Harry S. Truman signed an Act of Congress on Aug. 3, 1949, designating National Flag Day on June 14, which has been proclaimed annually by every president since then.