On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress approved the design of a national flag.
Since 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson issued a presidential proclamation establishing a national Flag Day on June 14, Americans have commemorated the adoption of the Stars and Stripes by celebrating June 14 as Flag Day. Prior to 1916, many localities and a few states had been celebrating the day for years. Congressional legislation designating that date as the national Flag Day was signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1949; the legislation also called upon the president to issue a flag day proclamation every year.
Resolved, that the Flag of the thirteen United States shall be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars, white on a blue field, representing a new constellation.
According to legend, in 1776, George Washington commissioned Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross to create a flag for the new nation. Scholars debate this legend, but agree that Mrs. Ross most likely knew Washington and sewed flags. To date, there have been twenty-seven official versions of the flag, but the arrangement of the stars varied according to the flag-makers’ preferences until 1912 when President Taft standardized the then-new flag’s forty-eight stars into six rows of eight. The forty-nine-star flag (1959-60), as well as the fifty-star flag, also have standardized star patterns. The current version of the flag dates to July 4, 1960, after Hawaii became the fiftieth state on August 21, 1959.
Interviews in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940 contain entertaining examples of Flag Day in the American vernacular. For example, a search on Flag Day retrieves the following conversation between Mr. Richmond and Mr. Davis:
“Why ain’t you got your flag out?” says Mr. Richmond, entering the gas station in which he spends much of his time these days. “You know today is flag day, don’t you?”
“I guess the boss forgot to buy a flag, George,” says Mr. Davis, the station attendant. “And even if we had one, we ain’t got no place to put it.”
Mr. Richmond: “That’s a fine state of affairs, that is. Here they are tryin’ to bring home to you people the fact that you’re livin’ in one of the few countries where you can draw a free breath and you don’t even know it. You’re supposed to have flags out all this week. Don’t you know that? This is flag day and this is flag week. Where’s your patriotism?”
Mr. Davis: “What the hell are you hollerin’ about, George? You’re always runnin’ the country down. They can’t do anything to suit you. You’re worryin’ about taxes and future generations and all like that. Where’s your patriotism?”
Mr. Richmond: “Well, that’s different. A man got a right to criticize. That’s free speech. Don’t mean I ain’t patriotic.”
“I do not salute the flag because I have promised to do the will of God,” wrote ten-year-old Billy Gobitas, a Jehovah’s Witness, to the board of the Minersville (Pennsylvania) School District in 1935. Like most public school students at that the time, Gobitas was required to salute and pledge allegiance to the flag daily. His refusal to do so touched off one of several constitutional battles over the authority of the state to require respect for national symbols and the right of individuals to freedom of speech.
Both the United States district court and the court of appeals ruled in favor of the right to refuse to salute the flag. In 1940, however, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the government did have the authority to compel respect for the flag as a central symbol of national unity. Just three years later, on June 14, 1943, the Supreme Court reconsidered its earlier decision, holding that the right of free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment denies the government the authority to compel individuals to salute the American flag or to recite the pledge of allegiance.
Billy Gobitas’ letter is displayed in the online exhibition, American Treasures of the Library of Congress. Other related treasures include Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner” and John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
- Search Congress.gov on the word flag to find recent legislation introduced in Congress related to the flag.
- Visit the Today in History feature of September 13 to learn the story of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
- “True to the Flag March,” by F. von Blon; performed by the United States Marine Band, April 1, 1922. Inventing Entertainment: the Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies
- Just for fun, look at the script Flags of the World, by Frank Tannehill, Jr., from The American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920. The piece culminates in a chorus line composed of women dressed as an American flag.
- Learn more about the Veterans History Project, which collects the stories and experiences of war veterans who served under the U.S. flag. The online Project Kit includes all the information and forms you need to participate.
- View Congress of Nations, a patriotic film by the Thomas Edison Co. featuring a magician who makes the flags of different countries appear. The dissolve effect was used for the first time in this motion picture.
- The Patriotic Melodies section of the Performing Arts Encyclopedia includes historical information, sheet music, and sound recordings for a variety of patriotic songs, including songs about the American flag.
- For many images and songs about “Old Glory,” search on flag in the following Library of Congress collections:
- America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA and OWI, ca. 1935-1945
- Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959
- Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991
- Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920
- Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, 1820-1860 & 1870-1885
- America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets