Archives for June 2017

The 13-Star Flag

The 13 Star Flag is the most common and popular colonial flag to this day, yet many people are unaware of its history. It became the official flag of the United States on June 14, 1777, now known as Flag Day. You may have seen many variations of this flag, such as the Betsy Ross Flag, the Cowpens Flag and the Guilford Courthouse Flag, and all are correct. The original Flag Resolution did not specify how the stars were to be arranged in the field of blue, so many different arrangements were used. You can learn more about the 13 Star Flag below. You can order your own 13 Star Flag as well.

13 Star Flag



13 Star Flag History

Prior to American Independence, a great many different flags were used by American colonists for military regiments and for shipping. These flags were usually variations of already existing British flags since the colonists were British subjects and the colonies were part of the British empire.

Once the colonists declared their independence, it became desirable for the new United States to have its own flag. Congress passed the Flag Resolution of 1777 on June 14th of that year. The Flag Resolution reads:

"Resolved, That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation."

Notice that the resolution says the stars should represent "a new Constellation," but does not specify how they should be arranged. It does not say how many points the stars should have. It does not say how wide the stripes should be or how long the canton (the upper left corner) should be relative to the rest of the flag. It does not say whether the red stripes should come first, or the white. Because of this lack of specificity, 13 Star Flags of many varying designs were used for many years. Over time, certain versions became more common and eventually, Congress defined more clearly what American flags should like.

British Red Ensign FlagIt is generally agreed that the stars on the 13 Star Flag were chosen to represent the 13 colonies and that the stars replaced the British Union. The Union was the familiar symbol of the British flag which represented a "union" of the Cross of St. George, the symbol of England, which was a red cross on a white background and the cross of St. Andrew, the symbol of Scotland, which was a diagonal white cross on a blue background. The Union flag was created when Scotland and England joined as one empire in 1707.

Later the Cross of St. Patrick was added when Ireland joined the union in 1801. The Cross of St. Patrick was a diagonal red cross on a white background. The combining of the three crosses makes the British flag we are familiar with today. You can see the British Union symbol in the canton (upper left corner) of the British Red Ensign flag at the right.

Disagreement about the origin of the 13 Star Flag

It should be pointed out that there is a lot of disagreement among historians about the development of the American flag. There are discrepancies in every proposed timeline. There are facts supporting and facts against every traditional flag legend that you may have heard.

For example, the 13 Star Flag commonly called the Hopkinson Flag, with the stars in a 3-2-3-2-3 pattern, is sometimes called the "First American Flag," but there is no written documentation that has been found to indicate this. There is only circumstantial evidence, such as that Hopkinson was head of the Navy Board when the Flag Resolution was passed and that Hopkinson later submitted a bill to Congress asking to be compensated for creating the flag. Then on the other hand, there are facts that weigh against this view, such as that Congress denied paying Hopkinson based on the fact that "many" people had contributed to the flag's design and that there is no documentary evidence of what Hopkinson's flag drawings may have looked like.

Another American flag legend you may have heard regards the Betsy Ross Flag, the 13 Star Flag with the stars arranged in a circle. Many people take the Betsy Ross Flag legend as fact, but there is absolutely zero documentary proof of the story. That being so, there is quite a bit of circumstantial evidence that makes her story seem likely, such as the fact that Betsy knew George Washington personally and another member of the secret flag committee that allegedly approached her was her husband's uncle, George Ross, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

George Washington after the Battle of Princeton by Charles Willson Peale

The original Flag Resolution of 1777 was first presented to Congress by the Marine Committee. So when the resolution was passed, it was considered as a regulation regarding naval affairs. This has led historians to question whether or not the 13 Star Flag was used mostly by the navy and rarely by the army, or whether it was used equally by both.

It would seem logical that since the resolution was presented by the navy that the navy was using the flag. There is evidence, however, in both letters and in paintings of the era that the 13 Star Flag was used on the battlefield. Artwork from Charles Willson Peale and Jonathan Trumbull, both preeminent artists of the day, showed 13 Star Flags in their battlefield depictions. Some historians have claimed that these flags are anachronisms, meaning they are accurate depictions, but out of the proper time slot. This seems unlikely, however, because both painters were known for studying their subjects meticulously to try to depict them accurately.

Peale painted many founding fathers and actually painted George Washington seven times. Peale's portrait of Washington called George Washington after the Battle of Princeton is said to be one of the most accurate physical portrayals of Washington. This painting shows Washington after the Battle of Princeton. Peale was personally present at this battle and fought on the front lines during the climax of the battle. The 13 star Betsy Ross flag can be clearly seen in the background. The problem is that this battle took place 6 months before the Flag Resolution. Was the 13 Star Flag already being used before the resolution was passed? Some scholars think so. Others disagree. More about the Betsy Ross Flag here.

Surrender of General Burgoyne by Jonathan Trumbull

Many documentary sources indicate widespread use of the 13 Star Flag beginning in the fall of 1777, matching the date of the Flag Resolution's passage in June of that year. Such a painting is Jonathan Trumbull's Surrender of General Burgoyne which took place in October, 1777. The 13 Star Flag is clearly seen in the picture. Trumbull, however, painted the 13 stars in varying patterns in different works, leading some scholars to question whether Trumbull was painting from first hand knowledge, or simply adding in what was popular at the time he made the paintings.

Other facts make the question of whether or not the 13 Star Flag was used extensively by the Continental Army seem less clear. One such source is a series of letters written between George Washington and Richard Peters, who was then the Secretary of the Board of War. In the letters, Peters is trying to get General Washington's approval for which flag he desires to be used for the army. The problem is that this exchange takes place two years after the Flag Resolution was passed. If the flag was decided upon by Congress in 1777, why is George Washington still trying to decide which flag to use 2 years later? This lends credibility to the idea that the 13 Star Flag was used mostly by the navy in the first few years.

You can read the three letters between Washington and Peters here:

All of these discrepancies make proving many points of the flag's development very difficult. Some things are certain, others are clouded in mystery. Consequently, all we can do is to inform you of the various relevant facts concerning each 13 Star FlagOrder Historic Flags here.

The New England Restraining Act

On March 30, 1775, the New England Restraining Act was made law with the signature of King George III. The Act restricts the New England colonies from trading with any other country besides Great Britain or her colonies and prevents colonists from entering the North Atlantic fisheries. These measures were enacted as a punishment to the colonies for their ban on trade with Britain after the institution of the Coercive Acts and other resistance to Parliament.

king-george-iiiColonial relations with Great Britain had been deteriorating gradually since the Stamp Act of 1765. The Tea Act of 1773 brought things to a head with a small tax placed on imported tea. Though the tax was small, the colonists were firm in their belief that Parliament did not have the right to tax them since they had no representation there. Instead, they believed the proper bodies to institute taxes on them were their own elected legislatures.

The citizens of Boston responded to the Tea Act by dumping 42 tons of imported tea into Boston Harbor in December, 1773, an act known as the Boston Tea Party. When news reached Parliament, it responded by passing the Coercive Acts, a series of acts to punish Boston which closed the harbor, shut down the Massachusetts government, moved trials of government officials out of the colony, required the housing of British troops on private property and extended the boundaries of French speaking, but British held, Quebec, which was viewed as a threat by the colonists.

Even though the Coercive Acts were focused on Massachusetts, all of the colonies saw the Acts as a precedent that could be extended to their own colonies. They responded with mass promises not to import any more British goods until the Acts were repealed. Most of the colonies began actively recruiting and training their own armies to confront Britain if the need arose. Most of the colonies sent representatives to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia to deal with the crisis as one.

boston-tea-partyParliament's response to all this preparation was to pass the New England Retraining Act, which was signed by the King on March 30, 1775. This Act forbade Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut from trading with any other countries but Great Britain or her colonies. The idea was to strangle the colonists into a position of desperation so they would drop their opposition and consent to Parliament's demands. The Acts also forbade them from using the North Atlantic fisheries off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, a heavy blow to the colonists, who were dependent on the food and income from the fisheries.

The New England Restraining Act focused on the New England colonies because the rebellion was centered there. In April, however, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina were added to the Act when it was learned that they were also participating in the boycotts and raising armies. The Act, tough as it was, was never really enforced and never amounted to much because the war broke out in Lexington on April 19th, causing Britain to escalate to the point of making war on her own people.

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