The History of Stripes on the American Flag

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"First National Flag", School Text: "A Brief History of the United States", 1880

The American flag was first conceived as a protest against tyranny. Since then it has gone through many changes, but through them all, the stripes of liberty remained.

The Sons of Liberty Flag was likely the first American flag to use red and white stripes, although there is some disagreement as to whether they were horizontal of vertical. The Sons of Liberty protested the British Stamp Act as well as the Tea Act, participating in the Boston Tea Party. It is their flag that first earned the title of “the rebel stripes” by the British.

Washington’s ‘Grand Union’ Flag Still Looked British but it Bore the Stripes

A regimental flag carried by a Philadelphia troop that escorted General George Washington to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1775 also bore 13 blue and silver stripes on its canton (upper left corner). It was soon after that in Cambridge that Washington took command of the united colonial militia. They then raised the “grand Union Flag” which was the British “red ensign” with 13 stripes added to symbolize the newly united colonies.

The stripes were meant to symbolize protest of the King, but the flag still carried the British cross in the canton. Coincidentally it was the same design as the British East India Company flag of 1701. This was a flag that would not have been well known to the colonists, but the British in Boston knew it quite well. Consequently, when Washington’s men raised it, the British thought they were surrendering!

The Patriots Continued to Carry the Stripes of Liberty

After America declared her independence, placing the British cross on the flag seemed inappropriate. There was, however, no official American flag, so many flags were flown and carried throughout the Revolutionary War. Not all flags had stripes, but many did as a symbol of liberty. These stripes, however, came in different colors. For instance, the privateer flag, flown by many American privateer ships, was made of stripes, but they were usually yellow and black.

It was the stripes that symbolized America’s rebellion against the British for many years. The earliest American flags usually had only stripes. These stripes were red and white or red, white and blue. In the earlier descriptions of the flag, the stripes were given more significance and importance. Even our national anthem echoes this as it refers to “the broad stripes and bright stars.”

The First Flag Act Called for 13 Stripes and 13 Stars

The first Flag Act in 1777 called for 13 stripes, alternating red and white, and a union of 13 stars, white on a field of blue. It is unclear how the flag developed five-pointed stars, as six or more points were customary. Possibly it was easier to cut five points from cloth (as legend says was demonstrated by Betsy Ross). Some believe that the stars came from George Washington’s family crest. Both theories have detractors.

More States First Meant More Stripes and Stars

In 1795 another flag design was officially documented with 15 stripes and 15 stars. It was thought that one stripe and one star should be added for each new state. This, however, proved difficult due to the expense of changing the entire flag each time a new state was added to the Union. So, 23 years later, with 20 states in the Union, the question of changing the flag was raised.

The Flag of 1818 Set the Standard for Today

Captain Samuel C. Reid, a naval hero in the War of 1812, was asked to design the new flag. He understood the importance of the flag’s visual recognition at sea. Consequently, he reduced the number of stripes back to 13, and called for the arrangement of the stars in rows for naval vessels. After the Act to Establish the Flag of 1818, a star was added for each new state, but the 13 stripes remained.

Sources:

  1. Mastai, Boleslaw and Marie-Louise D’Otrange. The Stars and the Stripes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1973
  2. Richardson, Edward W. Standards and Colors of the American Revolution. 1st ed.
  3. Pennsylvania: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.