Defining our national symbol

Getting to the root of red, white, and blue

Do you ever wonder what the colors of the flag represent? Ever wonder why the colors were chosen or where those definitions came from? The history may surprise you.


Stars and stripes

When the American Revolution began in 1775, there was not yet a specific flag to unite all of the colonists. Rather, there were a variety of flag designs cropping up regionally, out of which came the rattlesnake-emblazened, “Don’t Tread on Me” flag that is still well-known today. In fact, some historians reportedly believe that then-General George Washington was likely to have, ironically, flown a variation of the British Union Jack before 1777.

Washington’s employment of the Union Jack is an important detail because many historians believe that the colors for the Flag of the United States, ordered by the Continental Congress in 1777, were derived from the British Union Jack. The resolution passed by the Continental Congress designating the design elements of the flag read only that “the flag of the United States be 13 stripes, alternate red and white” and that “the union be 13 stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” Historians have not yet discovered primary resources documenting any other explanations of why the pattern or colors would have been chosen — even the Union Jack theory is partial speculation.


White, then red, then blue

In fact, it wasn’t until 1782, when the committee charged with devising a seal for the United States of America in 1776 finally realized their mission. In presenting the Great Seal, the then-Secretary of the Continental Congress defined the specific meanings of the colors in the Seal, saying, “ The colors of the pales (the vertical stripes) are those used in the flag of the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness and valour, and Blue, the color of the Chief (the broad band above the stripes) signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice.”


Putting it all together

Of course, the design of the United States flag has been updated 26 times to reflect the growth of our nation. Currently, the 50 stars represent the 50 states, and the 13 stripes represent the 13 original colonies. However, the stars, stripes, colors and attributed meanings are things we can count on, regardless of how many alterations may yet be to come or which legends we each personally choose to also embrace.

This very insightful video — a brief, but comprehensive history of the early development of the United States flag — was made available from Drexel University.




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