History of the United States Flag
What Every Scout Should Know

National flags are not merely symbols of a country. Their colors and designs convey past history and future goals. Flags have powerful connotations. They speak to the people and politicians. People of one country will burn the flag of another with whose politics they do not agree. To show their anger, students display their own nation's flags with the design altered or cut out completely. Dictators fly flags; dissidents rip them down. In every country of the world, the treatment of a flag displays an opinion or statement.

Americans take the treatment of their flag seriously and in the 20th century this has become an important issue. Included in the code of ethics are such rules as:

  • The National Flag cannot be used for advertising.
  • It cannot cover a monument or any ceilings.
  • It must not be folded while being displayed.
  • No one should write on an American flag.
  • Ships can lower their flags slightly in greeting each other, but otherwise should not be dipped for any other object or person.

In the late 1960s, American students wore small flags sewn to the back of their jeans, symbolically insulting the American government and protesting its involvement in the Vietnam War. They burned the American flag in front of the Capitol Building in Washington as a statement of protest. In the early 1990s, senators suggested an amendment to the Constitution that would make this treatment of the flag illegal. The proposition was opposed because many others felt that this change would be a violation of Americans' constitutional rights to express their opinions freely.

For all the controversy, it is interesting to point out that the United States did not even have a standardized flag until 1912! Called the "Stars and Stripes" , or "Old Glory" , the flag is one of the most complicated in the world. No other flag needs 64 pieces of fabric to make. The current flag has 13 red and white alternating stripes (representing the original 13 states) and 50 stars (each star represents one of the states of the Union) on a blue background.

The American flag has also changed designs more than any other flag in the world. The first flag, called the "Grand Union" , was first flown at the headquarters of the Continental Army on January 1, 1776. Betsy Ross, a seamstress, is said to have contributed to this design. She had an upholstery business which made flags for navy ships in Pennsylvania. A legend still persists that she showed George Washington how to make a five-pointed star and suggested thirteen stars in a circle for the first flag. Her descendants claimed that she offered the design. Actually, she and George Washington never met! George Washington did design the "Grand Union" but an often-quoted remark attributed to him might not be true:

"We take the stars from heaven, the red from our mother country, separate it by white in stripes, thus showing that we have separated from her..."
On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress proposed that the United States have a national flag instead of the British Union Jack. The 13 stars of the flag represented the 13 new states. There were few public ceremonies honoring the "Stars and Stripes" until 1877, when on, June 14, it was flown from every government building in honor of the centennial of the adoption of a national flag.

Schools had unfurled American flags over their doors oroutside the buildings long before this; but in 1890, North Dakota and New Jersey made a law that required their schools to fly the flag daily.

The first official Flag Day was observed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1893. New York also proclaimed June 14 as Flag Day 1897. Other states were slow to follow. Some people thought that the day was too close to Memorial Day and Independence Day. In August 1949, President Harry S. Truman proclaimed June 14* as Flag Day. Since then the President proclaims the commemoration yearly, and encourages all Americans in the country to display the Stars and Stripes outside their homes and businesses. Individual states determine how they will observe the day. In Pennsylvania and American Samoa it is a public holiday. Usually the flag is flown from all public buildings, speeches are made in public places and ceremonies take place in towns or cities. In American Samoa , Flag Day is celebrated on April 17th.

The famous name, "Old Glory" , was coined by Captain Stephen Driver, a shipmaster of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1831. As he was leaving on one of his many voyages aboard the brig CHARLES DOGGETT (this one would climax with the rescue of the mutineers of the BOUNTY) some friends presented him with a beautiful flag of twenty four stars. As the banner opened to the ocean breeze for the first time, he exclaimed "Old Glory!" He retired to Nashville in 1837, taking his treasured flag from his sea days with him.

By the time the Civil War erupted, most everyone in and around Nashville recognized Captain Driver's "Old Glory" . When Tennessee seceded from the Union, Rebels were determined to destroy his flag, but repeated searches revealed no trace of the hated banner.

On February 25th, 1862, Union forces captured Nashville and raised the American flag over the capital. It was a rather small ensign and immediately folks began asking Captain Driver if "Old Glory" still existed. Happy to have soldiers with him this time, Captain Driver went home and began ripping at the seams of his bedcover. As the stitches holding the quilt-top to the batting unraveled, the onlookers peered inside and saw the 24-starred original "Old Glory" . Captain Driver gently gathered up the flag and returned with the soldiers to the capitol. Though he was sixty years old, the Captain climbed up to the tower to replace the smaller banner with his beloved flag.

The Sixth Ohio Regiment cheered and saluted - and later adopted the nickname "Old Glory" as their own, telling and re-telling the story of Captain Driver's devotion to the flag we honor yet today.

Captain Driver's grave is located in the old Nashville City Cemetery, and is one of three places authorized by act of Congress where the Flag of the United States may be flown 24 hours a day.

The Pledge of Allegiance

On September 8,1892, the Boston based "The Youth's Companion" magazine published a few words for students to repeat on Columbus Day that year. Written by Francis Bellamy, the circulation manager and native of Rome, New York, it was reprinted on thousands of leaflets, was sent out to public schools across the country. On October 12, 1892, the quadricentennial of Columbus' arrival, more than 12 million children recited the Pledge of Allegiance , thus beginning a required school-day ritual.

At the first National Flag Conference in Washington D.C., on June14, 1923, a change was made. For clarity, the words "the Flag of the United States" replaced "my flag". In the following years various other changes were suggested but were never formally adopted. It was not until 1942 that Congress officially recognized the Pledge of Allegiance .

One year later, in June 1943, the Supreme Court ruled that school children could not be forced to recite it. In fact, today only half of our fifty states have laws that encourage the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in the classroom!

In June of 1954 an amendment was made to add the words "under God". Then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower said,

"In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of relgious faith in America's heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource in peace and war."

Why the American Flag Is Folded 13 Times

Have you ever wondered why the flag of the United States of America is folded thirteen times when it is lowered or when it is folded and handed to the widow at the burial of a veteran?

We fold from the stripes toward the stars, for the stripes symbolize the 13 original colonies that founded our republic are now embodied in the 50 sovereign states of the nation. So when our flag is secure, the stars cover the stripes.

Our flag is folded in a triangle to teach us that our government is formed of three interdependent bodies–the executive, legislative, and judicial. There are thirteen folds, one for each of the original thirteen colonies. All are encased in the blue seal to remind us that they, as well as we, are under the love and care of the Almighty God, a free and united nation.

When the flag is completely folded, the stars are uppermost reminding us our National Motto, "In God We trust".

After the flag is completely folded and tucked in, it takes on the appearance of a cocked hat, ever reminding us of the soldiers who served under General George Washington, and the sailors and marines who served under Captain John Paul Jones, who were followed by their comrades and shipmates in the Armed Forces of the United States, preserving for us the rights, privileges, and freedoms we enjoy today.

The next time you see a flag ceremony honoring someone who has served our country, either in the Armed Forces, or in civilian services such as the police department or fire department, keep in mind all the important reasons behind each and every movement. They have paid the ultimate sacrifice for all of us by honoring our flag and our country.

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