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Fig. 1 USN 900243 United States Flag with 15 stars and 15 stripes. Used between 1 May 1795 and 1818, during The Quasi War with France, Tripolitan War, and The War of 1812. This type flag inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner.

What So Proudly We Hail

From Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class (SW/AW) Mutis A. Capizzi, Naval History and Heritage Command

Every morning at 0800, Sailors around the world hear the call to colors. They take a moment of silence, stop what they are doing, and stand at attention to salute the national ensign while the Star-Bangled Banner plays.

Title 4, Section 6 of the United States Code (4 U.S.C. 6), states that “the flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.” Flags have long been a method of communication, a way to get messages across when traditional methods will not work. For each individual during that time of reverence, the national flag communicates messages such as the promise of a new life, freedom, safety, pride, or prosperity. To adversaries, knowing the ideals, strength, and determination it represents, they see the flag and think twice about inflicting harm on the country it stands for. To friends, they look at the national flag and see an ally in times of trouble. National Flag Day was proclaimed to be observed on June 14 and signed into law by President Harry Truman on August 3, 1959, and has continued to be proclaimed by every President since then. The first noted observance was in schools across the United States when they created Flag Day programs to aid the Americanization of immigrant children in the late 1800s.

Fig. 1 USN 900243 United States Flag with 15 stars and 15 stripes. Used between 1 May 1795 and 1818, during The Quasi-War with France, the Tripolitan War, and The War of 1812. This type of flag inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star-Spangled Banner.
Fig. 2 USN 900247 United States Flag between 1775-1795. Adopted June 4, 1777, 13 Stars and 13 stripes. Note the British Union of the Grand Union Flag is replaced by The Starry Union of the Schooner “Lee” flag. (Shown at Naval Exhibit, Philadelphia Pa. June to Dec. 1926)

Our national ensign has taken many different forms before becoming the standard we see today. It is widely believed that Betsy Ross of Philadelphia created the first flag, the most famous variation with its 5-point stars in a circular pattern against the blue field, at the request of George Washington.

It is said that the stars arranged in a circle were based on the idea that all of the colonies (Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island) of the United States were equal. However, scholars actually credit the creation of the flag to a man who created the great seal and first coin of the United States – Francis Hopkinson.

The Continental Congress “resolved, that the Flag of the thirteen United States shall be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars, white on a blue field, representing  new constellation” on June 14, 1777. The reason establishing a national flag was important is because, at that time, each colony had its own unique flag, flown from their individual colonial vessels. England looked on these vessels as pirate ships and punished the crews accordingly to their laws. At first, Congress was adding stripes as well as stars for each new state that joined the United States. That practice went on until Congress decided to return to the 13 original stripes and just add a new star for each new state in 1818.

The Birth of Old Glory from Painting by Moran. Percy Moran, artist; photomechanical print, [Red Oak, Iowa]: Thomas D. Murphy, Co., c1917. From the Library of Congress.

There have been 27 official versions of the national ensign, with flag makers given the option of arranging the stars however they saw fit. President William Howard Taft standardized the formation of the rows of stars we see today in 1912. The current flag was standardized on July 4, 1960, when the fiftieth star was added for Hawaii when it became a state on August 21, 1959.  

The flags alternating red and white stripes represent the 13 original colonies, as well as the struggle for independence as they rested side by side. The red color of the stripes represents valor and bravery, while the white of the stripes and stars represents both purity and liberty. The white stars on a blue field represent the 50 states; the color blue signifying vigilance, perseverance, and justice. It is important to know that the words “flags,” “ensign,” “color,” and “standard” preceded by the word “national” can be used interchangeably and refer to the flag that represents our national government.

Title 4, Section 6 of the United States Code (4 U.S.C. 6) has the official information on the flag, including the standard proportions, rules to observe when displaying the flag, and how to treat this national symbol properly. The most frequently expressed concerns regarding the flag have been summarized below:

  • Display the flag from sunrise to sunset on buildings or flagstaffs and at night, only if properly lighted.
  • The flag should be raised and lowered by hand and never raised furled.
  • Always raise the flag briskly and lower it ceremoniously.
  • When carried, the flag should be held aloft, never flat or horizontal.
  • The flag should never be allowed to touch the ground or floor, nor brush against any objects, nor be used as drapery of any sort.
  • The flag should never be displayed with the union down except as a signal of distress in instances of extreme danger.
  • When a flag is no longer in a condition to be displayed, it should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.
  • The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding or drapery.
  • The flag should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins, boxes, or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard.
  • A flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations. Lapel flag pins should be worn on the left lapel near the heart.
  • Any person who places any word, figure, mark, picture, design, or drawing in an attempt to use as advertising or in the mutilation of the flag will be found guilty of a misdemeanor and can be punished by a fine not exceeding $100.00 or imprisonment for not more than 30 days.
  • During the Pledge of Allegiance, persons in uniform should not recite the pledge, but they should remain silent, facing the flag and rendering the military salute.
  • The flag should not be displayed on days when the weather is inclement, except when an all-weather flag is used.
  • When the flag is used to cover a casket, it should be placed so that the union is at the head and over the left shoulder. The flag should not be lowered into the grave or allowed to touch the ground.

References:

 Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, “The Origins of Flag Day,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. [Online]. Available: https://www.va.gov/opa/publications/celebrate_americas_freedoms.asp. [Accessed: 12-May-2020].

“Today in History – June 14,” The Library of Congress. [Online]. Available: https://www.loc.gov/item/today-in-history/june-14/. [Accessed: 14-May-2020].

M. J. Cusick, “The American Flag Its History and Customs,” The American Flag – Its History and Customs. [Online]. Available: https://assembly.ny.gov/member_files/063/20050930c/. [Accessed: 14-May-2020].

“The American Flag and Its Flying Rules,” USAGov, 19-Feb-2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.usa.gov/flag. [Accessed: 14-May-2020].

Naval Telecommunications Procedures Flags, pennants & customs, NTP (B). Washington, D.C.: DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY, 1986, pp. 1–1.