Episode 032

The Flag Resolution

The United States flag is an iconic symbol, created in part with the Flag Resolution. But did soldiers in the Continental Army use it? Yes and no. We'll find out more on this week's episode.

The Battle of Ridgefield was on 27 Apr 1777, and a few months later on June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution which 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 first official U.S. flag flown during battle was on August 3, 1777 at Fort Schuyler (also known as Fort Stanwix) during the Siege of Fort Stanwix. Massachusetts reinforcements brought news of the adop tion 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.

The 1777 resolution was most probably meant to define a naval flag. 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 May 10, 1779, Secretary of the Board of War Richard Peters expressed concern “it is not yet s ettled 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. This flag, however, is more likely a flag used for celebrations of anniversaries of the nation’s birthday. Experts have dated the earliest known example of this flag to be 1792 in a painting by John Trumbull.

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 October 3, 1778, to the King 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 the flag staff, 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.

But I know what you’re thinking…what about Betsy Ross? Growing up as children we’ve all always learned the tale that Miss Ross gave Washington an idea for a flag that he then in turn used and it became the standard flag for the nation. In case you’re one of my overseas listeners, here’s a brief overview of what most of us American’s learn during our early school years:

In 1870, Betsy Ross’s grandson, William Canby, told her story publicly for the first time, delivering a paper titled “The History of the Flag of the United States” to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. According to Canby, Ross’s involvement with the flag began in 1776, a year before Congress passed its first flag resolution. He wrote:

Sitting sewing in her shop one day with her girls around her, several gentlemen entered. She recognized one of these as the uncle of her deceased husband, Col. George Ross, a delegate from Pennsylvania to Congress. She also knew the handsome form and features of the dignified, yet graceful and polite Commander in Chief, who, while he was yet Colonel Washington had visited her shop both professionally and socially many times, (a friendship caused by her connection with the Ross family) they announced themselves as a committee of congress, and stated that they had been appointed to prepare a flag, and asked her if she thought she could make one, to which she replied, with her usual modesty and self reliance, that “she did not know but she could try; she had never made one but if the pattern were shown to her she had not doubt of her ability to do it.”

The committee produced a conceptual drawing. Seamstress Ross did not like the design and suggested improvements. Washington agreed with her, grabbed a pencil, and revised the drawing. Canby did not know what these changes were with one exception. The drawing showed six-pointed stars; seamstress Ross reportedly wanted five points. The committee members said they took too much effort. Canby wrote:

“Nothing easier” was her prompt reply and folding a piece of paper in the proper manner, with one clip of her ready scissors she quickly displayed to their astonished vision the five pointed star; which accordingly took its place in the national standard.
According to the story, things moved swiftly from there. She made a prototype flag. The committee liked it. Congress approved it. And the Philadelphia seamstress became a flag maker for the fledgling nation. Colonel Ross fronted the operation, supplying a £100 advance for materials. Canby’s tale struck a responsive chord among Americans. They loved Washington’s role in the story as well as Ross’s character—an engaging mix of can-do spirit, common sense, and homespun ability.

By 1873, the Betsy Ross story was appearing in national journals. In 1909, Canby’s brother and nephew published a book, The Evolution of the American Flag. That volume cemented widow Ross’s place in the public mind.

Skeptics have doubted the tale for almost a century. Critics said then, as well as now, that it has charm but no documentary support, which Canby readily admitted. Ross’s grandson told the Pennsylvania Historical Society in his presentation that his research in Philadelphia and in Washington, DC, revealed nothing about who designed or sewed the first United States flag.

“The search was fruitless,” he said, “as might have been expected, as to the finding of any matter throwing light on the origin of the design, and the making of the flag. It was not fruitless in this, however, that it establishes the fact that no such history there exists; a fact not heretofore definitely stated.”

Canby relied on family oral accounts. None of Canby’s sources had witnessed Washington’s visit or his grandmother making the flag. Instead, all said they had heard her tell the story many times.

Today, historians almost uniformly agree that family oral history is not particularly reliable. And I think most of us would tend to agree with this. If you don’t get about 30 people together and play a game of telephone and see what happens.
Though evidence shows that Betsy Ross made flags for the Pennsylvania navy, nothing else in Canby’s story can be verified. Specifically, a few points trouble researchers: No evidence shows that a congressional flag committee existed in 1776. If one had, Washington probabl y would not have been on it because he was not a member of Congress at that time. No record shows Congress addressing the flag issue in any way until it passed the 1777 resolution. Nothing suggests that Washington ever dealt with Betsy Ross f or any reason. No written material of any sort supports the story.

We probably will never know who made the first flag. We do, however, have a good idea about who originated its design. And prior to having a unifed design, we see the various continental army units carrying flags of all types during the early 1770s to express their distaste for British rule. Some colonists made one that featured a British Union Jack sitting in the upper-left corner of a red field with the words “Liberty and Union” emblazoned in white along the field’s lower half. The tea-tossing Sons of Liberty flew a simple standard with alternating red and white stripes. Another popular ensign sported a coiled rattlesnake on a yellow or red-and-white striped background with the words “Don’t tread on me.” (Also known as the Gadsen flag) Immediately before the Declaration of Independence, probably the most used unofficial flag of revolution was the Continental Colors. This design had a Union Jack in the upper-left corner and alternating red and white stripes. Although unofficial, this banner saw service with American forces. It also had the distinction of being the first American flag saluted by a foreign power.

The Continental Colors, however, had a practical and a symbolic flaw. Because it contained the Union Jack, the flag could create confusion in a battle. When American soldiers raised it outside the Siege of Boston, British troops thought the conflict was almost over. “By this time, I presume, they begin to think it strange that we have not made a formal surrender of our lines,” George Washington wrote. In addition, this flag did not represent reality. It implied a continuing tie to Great Britain just as a complete break was pending.

What evidence do we have to point to a single designer? A good deal. And it all points to a Declaration of Independence signer and Navy man: Francis Hopkins of New Jersey. Hopkins 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. He designed the flag somewhat inadvertently. His goal was to design a flag for the Naval ships of the Continental Army…not an entire nation.

The Navy Board was under the Continental Marine Committee. Not only did Hopkinson claim that he designed the U.S. flag, but he also claimed that he designed a flag for the U.S. Navy. Hopkinson was the only person to have made such a claim during his own lifetime, when he sent a letter and several bills to Congress for his work. These claims are documented in the Journals of the Continental Congress and George Hasting’s biography of Hopkinson. Hopkinson initially wrote a letter to Congress, via the Continental Board of Admiralty. In this letter, he asked 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.

However, in three subsequent bills to Congress, Hopkinson asked to be paid in cash, but he did not list his U.S. flag design. Instead, he asked to be paid for designing the “great Naval Flag of the United States” in the first bill; the “Naval Flag of the United States” in the second bill; and “the Naval Flag of the States” in the third, along with the other items. The flag references were generic terms for the naval ensign that Hopkinson had designed, that is, a flag of 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. Hopkinson’s sketches have not been found, but we can make these conclusions because Hopkinson incorporated different stripe arrangements in the Admiralty (naval) Seal that he designed in the Spring of 1780 and the Great Seal of the United States that he proposed at the same time. His Admiralty Seal had seven red stripes; whereas, his second U.S. Seal proposal had seven white ones. Hopkinson’s flag for the Navy is the one that the Nation preferred as the national flag.

Remnants of Hopkinson’s U.S. flag of seven white stripes can be found in the Great Seal of the United States and the President’s seal. When Hopkinson was chairman of the Navy Board, his position was like that of today’s Secretary of the Navy. The payment was not made, however, because it was determined he had already received a salary as a member of Congress.

Thanks! Hope you had fun with this week’s episode. It’s a bit of a departure from our normal conversations, but it’s important history. And to be honest, every solider that honors, respects, fights under, and has attached to their uniform a small flag. And we should pay respect to them and their duty, but learning where that comes from.

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