Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

By Betty Vanderwielen

Dynamic American flag reflects growth of the nation


SEELEY LAKE – The American flag is the preeminent symbol displayed at Fourth of July celebrations throughout the United States. Unlike the flags of other nations which once established maintain a static design through the generations, the American flag is a dynamic entity reflecting the growth of the nation it represents. The most obvious evidence of growth is the need to rearrange the configuration of the stars in the blue square canton whenever a new state is admitted to the union. Other flag deviations provide a graphic depiction of the changes the nation has undergone.

When the soon-to-be-united states were still British colonies, the British Red Ensign also called the Colonial Red Ensign was the most common flag flown. It consisted of a red rectangle with a small version of the British flag (the Union Jack) occupying the blue canton area.

As colonists became more and more dissatisfied with British rule, flags with different symbolic imagery began to be flown. The “Loyal Nine” formed a secret group, which eventually evolved into the Sons of Liberty, and was the impetus behind the Boston Tea Party among other rebellious acts. The founders gathered listeners around a large central tree flying what came to be known as the Rebellious Stripes. Based on the Colonial Red Ensign minus the Union Jack and blue canton, it merely consisted of four wide, white, vertical stripes breaking the red rectangle into a nine-stripe red and white pattern.

The British crown promptly outlawed the flag. In response the group merely changed the orientation of the stripes from vertical to horizontal. Eventually they added additional stripes to bring the number to 13, representing the original colonies. Colors also began to vary: green and white; yellow and white; red, white, and blue were also flown. The Pine Tree was a popular New England flag symbol, sometimes the sole image on a white background, sometimes carrying the words “Liberty or Death” or alternatively “Appeal to Heaven.” On some flags the pine tree completely replaced the Union Jack canton, on others only one quadrant of it. Another favorite flag symbol was a coiled rattlesnake, sometimes with the words “Don’t Tread on Me.”

In other words, America did not enter into the Revolution united under a single flag. Every state and region focused on its own particular grievances and reflected that in their chosen banner. The pine tree protested the British conscripting the biggest trees along the New England coast for their shipbuilding, while forbidding colonists from using the trees for their own purposes. The rattlesnake symbol came courtesy of Benjamin Franklin who satirically suggested that since the British kept sending convicted felons to the colonies, American colonists should send a boat load of rattlesnakes to England and let them loose in the nobles’ gardens. Even a teacup made its way onto some flags as a protest on excessive taxation on tea.

Early skirmishes of the Revolutionary War were as scattered and uncoordinated as the flags under which the various militias fought. As the Continental Army became more coordinated under the leadership of General George Washington, it became evident that a uniting flag was needed. The Continental Colors, which later became known as the Grand Old Union Flag, consisted of 13 alternating horizontal red and white stripes with the Union Jack in a blue canton. The advantage of such a flag was that the stripe pattern provided an immediately discernible way to distinguish American troops from British troops bearing their predominately red flag. Another advantage was that existing Colonial Red Ensign flags could quickly be converted into Grand Old Union Flags simply by sewing on white stripes.

The decision to remove the Union Jack entirely came on June 14, 1777 when the Continental Congress chose to keep the 13 red and white alternating stripes but decreed the canton should bear “thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.”

The unspecified configuration of the “new Constellation” resulted in a multitude of new flags. Though there is no conclusive proof that Betsy Ross was commissioned by Washington to create the first official U.S. flag, a flag with a blue canton in which 13 five-pointed stars formed a circle generally bears her name. Most flags tended to configure the stars in rows, though star patterns (i.e., small stars arranged to create a single large star shape) were also used.

In 1795 when Vermont and Kentucky were admitted to the union, two more stripes and two more stars were added to the flag. However, in 1818 when the number of states swelled to 20, the stripes returned to 13 and thereafter only the stars increased to reflect the number of states currently in the union.

As more states were welcomed into the United States, the star patterns shifted positions to accommodate them. Some years there was both a row-pattern flag and an acceptable alternate circle or star version. It was not until 1912 that the layout of the stars was officially standardized into one pattern to be used by all states.

Reflecting the dynamism of America’s growth, the design of the flag has been officially modified 26 times since 1777.

We attest to that dynamism each time we place our hands over our hearts and pledge our allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.

Respectful Flag Etiquette

• Citizens should stand at attention and place their right hands over their hearts or salute when the flag is passing in a parade or being hoisted or lowered.

• The flag should be hoisted briskly and lowered ceremoniously.

• Do not let the flag touch the ground.

• Before flying a flag at half-staff, hoist to its peak for an instant before lowering it.

• Display the flag only between sunrise and sunset on buildings and stationary staffs. The flag may be displayed for 24 hours if illuminated at night.

• Do not display the flag in inclement weather.

• When the flag is displayed from a staff projecting horizontally or at an angle, the canton should be placed at the peak of the staff.

• Whether displaying the flag vertically or horizontally, make sure the canton of stars is visible on the upper left-hand side.

• No other flag or pennant should be placed above or, if on the same level, to the right of the flag of the United States of America, except during church services for the personnel of the Navy while at sea.

• When not on display, the flag should be respectfully folded into a triangle, symbolizing the tricorn hats worn by colonial soldiers in the Revolutionary War.

• An unusable flag that is damaged and worn and can no longer be displayed should be destroyed in a dignified way by burning.

For more detailed information about flag protocol visit The American Legion website (


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