The Meaning and History of the American Flag and Why We Honor It
First Flag of the United States
USA Flag History
We all know that the 50 stars on the flag represent the 50 states and that the stripes represent the original 13 colonies. We also know that Betsy Ross made the first flag. But did you know that George Washington commissioned her to make it after a few other men or that Washington first drew on a piece of parchment what they wanted? Betsy Ross wasn't thrilled to take on this responsibility, and her initial response was, "I don't know, but I can try." Here are more facts that you probably did not know about the stars, the stripes, the colors, the folds, and the meaning behind it all.
Did You Know?
"Old Glory", the original Star Spangled Banner, is one of the main artifacts on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.
Stars on the United States Flag
Throughout history, the number of stars on the flag has changed. As each state joined the United States of America, another star was added. On July 4, 1960, Hawaii was the final star that completed the flag that we know today.
The shape of the star chosen to represent each state was a unique decision. Prior to the end of the 18th century, six, seven, and eight pointed stars were more commonplace than the five-pointed star. Some speculate that the five-pointed star was chosen to further separate the United States from Europe. Another theory is that Betsy Ross came up with the five-pointed star because it was easier to do with one snip of the scissors than a six-pointed star. No one knows for sure, but the five-pointed star was a unique decision that allows our flag to be that much more special to Americans.
How Many Stars Were on the Flag?
Number of Stars
Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia
Kentucky and Vermont
Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee
Alabama and Maine
Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington
Arizona, and New Mexico
Stripes on the American Flag
The 13 stripes on each flag are always seven red and six white. Prior to 1916, there was no consistency about whether the flag had six or seven red stripes. No one knows for sure if there was a reason that seven red stripes were chosen, although some may wonder if it had anything to do with keeping the edges of the flag clean since white shows dirt more easily than red. Not a very patriotic reason, but a very logical answer.
As for the stripes themselves, they stand for the first 13 colonies. They include:
- Virginia (1607)
- New Jersey (1618)
- Massachusetts (1620)
- New Hampshire (1622)
- Pennsylvania (1623)
- New York (1624)
- Maryland (1634)
- Connecticut (1635)
- Rhode Island (1636)
- Delaware (1638)
- North Carolina (1653)
- South Carolina (1670)
- Georgia (1733)
Colors of the Flag
The colors on the flag were deliberately chosen to represent a theme that our founding fathers felt was important to the building of our nation.
- Red stands for courage, hardiness, and bloodshed. Courage because our country is based on the courage of separating from what we once knew, courage of starting over, courage of fighting for our freedom. Hardiness because our founding fathers believed our country will outlast the land that we came from. And finally, blood shed to honor all those who lost their life for our freedom and our country.
- White stands for purity and vigilance, purity because our country is independent and is not corrupted by any other country. Vigilance because our country needs to be alert and careful in the choices we make.
- Blue stands for justice and perseverance, justice because it is the basis of our country, and perseverance because although our nation is young, we will stand strong against all opposition.
Did You Know?
According to the U.S. Department of State, the names of the flag's official colors are "old glory red," "white," and "old glory blue." Their HTML codes and Pantone equivalents can be found on the Department of State's style guide.
Why We Honor the American Flag
One of the main reasons we honor the flag is to pay respect to our country and the liberties that we enjoy here. This means paying respects to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
One of the most symbolic ways we pay respects is during the funerals for our police and military. It became ritual to cover the casket of a deceased public official or Armed Forces member in the 1700s during the Napoleonic Wars. Today, the tradition is used to remind funeral-goers of the deceased’s commitment and sacrifice.
According to Today, there are three ways that the American flag should be shown during a decedent's burial:
- Closed casket: the flag should be arranged on the casket with the union blue field at the head and over the left shoulder of the deceased.
- Half couch (open): the flag should be placed in three layers so that union is the top fold by the open part of the casket to the deceased’s left.
- Full couch (open): the flag should be folded in the traditional triangular shape and placed in the middle portion on the head panel of the casket cap right above the left shoulder of the deceased.
A flag that has been folded into the traditional triangle can be displayed next to the cremated remains during a service.
Customs for Folding the American Flag
Whenever the United States of America's flag is folded, there is a symbol behind each fold and tuck. It is not random, but very purposeful. This is one reason why they will fold an American flag at a veteren's funeral.
They always fold the flag so that way only the blue and white stars can be seen. One reason they do this is so that none of the red shows, because it stands for the blood shed. We want to remember the person's perseverance and vigilance, not the loss of the person.
Even the shape is considered when folding the flag. It is in the shape of a triangle so that it symbolizes the hat worn by Revolutionary soldiers. It is because of these men that we have our freedom and our rights.
What Does Each Fold in the American Flag Mean?
- Fold One: Symbol of life
- Fold Two: Symbol of belief in eternal life
- Fold Three: Honor and remembrance of veterans
- Fold Four: Symbol of our weaker nature
- Fold Five: Tribute to the United States of America
- Fold Six: Symbol of our hearts and devotion
- Fold Seven: Tribute to the Armed Forces
- Fold Eight: For those who went into the "Valley of the Shadow of Death"
- Fold Nine: Tribute to womanhood and its giving and nurturing nature
- Fold Ten: Tribute to our fathers who gave their sons to protect our land
- Fold Eleven: Dedication to Jews and represents the bottom of the Seal of King David and King Solomon
- Fold Twelve: Represents the Christian and glorifies God.
The American Flag and Tradition
The U.S. National Anthem
The American flag is deeply-rooted in the traditions of our country. It hit a milestone during the War of 1812 between the United States and the United Kingdom. Poet Francis Scott Key found himself in Baltimore during the conflict just as Britain’s Royal Navy unleashed an assault on Fort McHenry at Chesapeake Bay. Key watched the attack from a ship a few miles from the action. When the British left a day later, Key was surprised to observe the flag still waving over the fort. He was inspired to write the "Star Spangled Banner" as a tribute to what he witnessed. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson declared the song to be played at all national events before it was made the national anthem March 3, 1931.
The Pledge of Allegiance
Francis Bellamy was tasked with developing a patriotic program for schools around the country in commemoration of the 400th year anniversary of Columbus’ journey to the New World. The pledge was intended to ensure that younger people knew to respect that flag and to prevent any more civil conflicts in the future. In its original form the pledge read:
"I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
Did You Know?
President Eisenhower added the phrase “one nation, indivisible under God,” in 1954 as a response to the fear that atheism was being spread by the Soviet Union.
Proper Flag Etiquette
The section of law detailing guidelines involving the U.S. flag is called the Flag Codes. Some of the statues include:
- Never letting the flag touch the ground.
- Not displaying the flag during unpleasant weather conditions.
- Hoisting the flag energetically and lowering it ceremoniously.
- To never dip the flag in such a way as to “bow” unless as a signal of duress.
- The flag should never be embroidered, printed, or otherwise for any advertising purposes.
- The flag should never be used as a costume or athletic uniform except for the patch used by military personnel or public servants and officials.
- Any flag that is worn, dirty, or torn should not be publicly displayed, but privately destroyed.
Flag Day: Celebrating Our Flag's Heritage
The First Flag day was held in 1877 on the 100th anniversary of the Flag Resolution in 1777. Today we celebrate Flag Day with parades, ceremonies, and picnics sponsored by our veterans, schools, and other patriotic program. The holiday is meant to preserve the honor and pride associated with our first flag, "Old Glory" and the values she stood to uphold.
Do You Feel That America Is the Land of the Free?
- Bartiromo, M. Flag Day Facts: 10 Things You Didn't Know About the American Flag. Retrieved from https://www.foxnews.com/real-estate/flag-day-facts-10-things-you-didnt-know-about-the-american-flag
- Deziel, C. Cherokee Symbols and What They Mean. Retrieved from http://www.ehow.com/about_6163988_folds-mean-folding-flag.html
- Jones, J. (2003, November). American Flag, Etiquette, Rules and Guidelines. Retrieved from https://www.almanac.com/content/american-flag-etiquette-rules-and-guidelines
- Mooney Jr., E. (2008) Flag Detective. Retrieved from http://www.flagdetective.com/
- Streufert, D. (2005, February 10). Flag Etiquette. Retrieved from http://www.usflag.org/flagetiquette.html
- Wyatt, R. (2015, November 13). History of the Stars and Stripes (U.S.) Retrieved from http://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/us-ststr.html
- American Flag: A Patrotic Symbol of Our Nation's Honor & Glory. Retrieved from https://www.flagcases.net/American-Flag-information.php
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- The Man Who Wrote the Pledge of Allegiance. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-man-who-wrote-the-pledge-of-allegiance-93907224/
- (2009, November 24) Key Pens Star Spangled Banner. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/key-pens-star-spangled-banner
- (2018, October 22). Flag Day. Retrieved from https://www.military.com/flag-day
Questions & Answers
How can I use the American flag as a topic for an essay?
First you need to decide what kind of essay you are trying to write. Are you trying to write an argumentative one or an explanatory one? What about this article did you find interesting? What caught your eye? What did you disagree with? What did you agree with? What surprised you? There are so many directions you could go when writing an essay about the American flag. It is up to you to decide what message you want to give to your reader. I personally stay away from debates, because I am pacifist by nature, but not by politics. So my writing tends to be expository. It doesn't catch people's attention unless their goal is just education.Helpful 24
How come there are different flags?
To understand why there are different flags, you need to understand the purpose of flags. In early years, a flag was raised to claim a particular land or ship. It was to notify others that that land/ship belonged to the group or country that flag represents. Flags are also used to show support and promote unity within a group. Since there are many different groups, countries, states, there is a need to symbolize each group through a flag, hence the multitude of flags.Helpful 22
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Do you feel it’s right that our professional football players kneel during our national anthem and disrespect our country by doing so and everybody that fought and died for it?
In our country, we are given the right to do as we please within certain parameters. We have free speech, which means they can be vocal if they are unhappy with something and want to make a statement. This is a silent protest and yet captures people's attention. I believe initially it was to speak out against brutality towards black Americans by police. But unfortunately, the mission is getting lost and less focused, which loses its impact. Too many people had different reasons. I was like "Oh I agree with that, but not that." And therefore, could not join it, since I was not one hundred supportive of all the ideas that were represented by it. Then again, I also noticed some contradicted one another as well.
I am not going to make a judgment call on whether I think it is right to do so. If I felt our country was going down a dark path that harmed people like that of the Holocaust, I would not stand and respect our country at that time. Do I personally agree with the reasons I have heard that some of them are kneeling? If I truly felt that police officers were targeting black Americans across all of the United States than yes, I would agree. I do believe there are police officers who are more racially charged against blacks, but I don't believe that is the norm. I believe that the majority of police officers are unbiased and protect our country as they should. So I do not feel that not standing for the national anthem is the proper way to protest against this particular act. I would rather see protests outside of police stations where there are bigotry and racism. It's not the country as a whole that is the problem. It is small pockets of people who hold onto such erroneous beliefs. Instead of disunity, I would rather see our country trying to speak out by promoting unity. I think purposely choosing to stand next to your teammate of a different race and joining hands in the air during the national anthem would speak louder than kneeling.Helpful 69
Why did they chose stars to represent the states ?
The honest answer is that no one truly knows for sure, but we do know that the resolution of the Continental Congress in 1777 states "the union [shall] be thirteen stars white in a blue field, representing a new constellation." This statement lies in the midst of resolutions regarding the Navy. The association of sailing and stars may have played a part. Also because the primary reason for a flag is to identify ships, it makes sense that there would be that navigational symbolism.Helpful 19
© 2012 Angela Michelle Schultz