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Brief History of the American Flag

BRIEF HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN FLAG

(Excerpted from History.com)

 When the American Revolution broke out in 1775, the colonists didn’t yet unite under a single flag. Instead, they fought mainly under unit or regimental flags, according to Marc Leepson, author of the book Flag: An American Biography. One flag of the time featured a picture of a coiled rattlesnake with the slogan “Don’t Tread on Me,” while another showed a pine tree with the words “An Appeal to Heaven.”

“There really wasn’t anything that was stars and stripes, red, white and blue,” says Mike Buss, a flag expert with the American Legion veterans’ organization.

In June 1775, the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, created a united colonial fighting force known as the Continental Army. Some historians claim that George Washington, the army’s commander in chief, ordered that a flag called the Continental Colors be raised the following New Year’s Day during a siege of British-occupied Boston. But David Martucci, past president of the North American Vexillological Association, the world’s largest group dedicated to the study of flags, believes Washington likely raised a British Union Jack instead.

The Continental Colors, which contained 13 alternating red and white stripes with a Union Jack in the upper left-hand corner, was only used by the navy and perhaps at forts, according to Martucci. “It was sort of a compromise between the radicals who wanted to see a separate nation and the people who were more conciliatory and wanted to see some accommodation with the crown,” he says.

Either way, Washington realized soon after that it probably wasn’t a good idea to fly a flag resembling that of the enemy, Leepson says. The Second Continental Congress was busy drafting a constitution known as the Articles of Confederation, seeking an alliance with France and supplying the war effort. But on June 14, 1777, it took time from its schedule to pass a resolution stating that “the flag of the United States be 13 stripes, alternate red and white” and that “the union be 13 stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

In 1912, President William Howard Taft signed an executive order that, for the first time, clarified what the flag should look like. Up until then, some flags were oddly proportioned, Leepson explains, or even had six- or eight-pointed stars.

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