The Fourth of July is America’s birthday; today, June 14, is the birthday of the American flag. It was on this date in 1777 that the Continental Congress adopted Betsy Ross’ design for a national flag. “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.” That much is undisputed; it’s in the record.
Precisely how that design came about and who did exactly what are less certain. Varying accounts abound, sometimes the result of foggy memories and spotty record keeping, sometimes driven by the desire of descendants of Revolutionary-era figures to inflate the family role in history. Here, in brief, is a generally agreed-upon account.
In early 1776, the Revolution was not going well. The Continental Army had just been reorganized under George Washington’s command, but the many independent colonial militias were slow to meld. One particular problem was the variety of flags they marched under, a situation that indicated lack of unity and made battlefield management difficult. A last straw for Gen. Washington was the assertion by Loyalists that the Grand Union flag, a close adaptation of the British Union Jack, flying over his headquarters was a sign that the Continentals were close to surrender.
Obviously, a new flag was needed, and Gen. Washington knew just who should make it — friend, fellow worshipper at Philadelphia’s Christ Church, seamstress and upholstery shop owner Betsy Ross. In May of that year, the general, Col. George Ross (a cousin of Betsy’s late husband, John, who had been killed a few months earlier in a munitions explosion) and Robert Morris (reputedly the wealthiest revolutionary of the day) called upon Mrs. Ross at her shop. This committee, dazzled by her ability to cut out a five-pointed star with a single snip of the scissors, assigned to this 25-year-old widow (she would lose a second husband to the war for independence as well) the awesome task of designing and making a new flag for a new nation. The rest, as they say, is history.
The rise of the Flag Day holiday began on June 14, 1877, when the flag was flown from every government building in honor of the Stars and Stripes’ centennial. In 1885, Wisconsin schoolteacher B.J. Cigrand began an annual June 14 “Flag Birthday” celebration, a practice that spread rapidly among schools. Flag Day was established by proclamation by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916; it became law established by an act of Congress and signed by President Harry Truman in 1949.