Why red, white and blue? Why these colors and not, oh, green and beige?
Flag Day is Thursday, so it's an apt moment to wonder, and a quick glance into the murky and legend-prone history of our national flag offers a fairly solid answer.
First, yes, Flag Day is without question a third-rate patriotic holiday, if you consider the Fourth of July as the undisputed No. 1, with the solemn military Memorial and Veterans days tying for second. Nobody gets off work for Flag Day. It's sort of an Arbor Day for flags, almost like one of those made-up Hallmark holidays, like Grandparents Day.
Except Flag Day actually commemorates something real, June 14, 1777, when the Continental Congress decreed: "The flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white, the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation."
Why those colors? In the 19th century, when people felt free to make stuff up, one patriotic guide suggested red, white and blue were handed down by God at Mt. Sinai.
The short, factual answer is our colors are red, white and blue because the British flag is red, white and blue. Changes that seem revolutionary in retrospect actually occur in stages, and when George Washington began leading his troops, they saw themselves as British citizens fighting for their rights. Thus his Grand Union Flag, raised over the Continental Army in January 1776, had the British Union Flag where the field of stars is now.
The British flag at the time was an amalgam of two crosses, the English cross of St. George and the Scottish Cross of St. Andrew The reason George's is red disappears into medieval lore (my guess: he's a martyr; red symbolized blood and courage). The reason Andrew's is white on blue rests on 1340-year-old legend: a sign, the X-shaped saltire cross, that Scottish King Angus MacFergus II supposedly saw in the sky before a battle in 732.
So the red, white and blue in the American flag represent, originally, blood, clouds and sky, which sounds about right.
Washington's version might have stuck—other former British colonies, such as Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and, surprisingly, the state of Hawaii, still have the Union Jack (as the British Union flag was called after the addition of the red X of Ireland in 1801) in miniature on the upper corners of their flags.
But in the 18 months between the time Washington hoisted his Grand Union flag, and Congress codified it, passions had inflamed, the British banner jettisoned, and somebody had substituted a field of stars.
No one is sure who. It almost certainly wasn't Betsy Ross. Much received flag wisdom is late 19th century whimsy embraced as fact by the ever-credulous public. Nothing suggests Ross had a hand in the creation of the American flag, beyond a paper presented in 1870 by her grandson based on family tradition. She was a seamstress and sewed a Pennsylvania navy flag, but beyond that the few known facts point elsewhere.
The next time Congress took up the flag was 1793, prompted by the admission to the union of Vermont and Kentucky. Sen. Stephen R. Bradley—of Vermont, naturally—proposed a bill "for altering the Flag of the United States" to reflect the change. It passed the Senate, but the always fractious House bristled at being asked to consider this minor matter.
One representative called the bill "a trifling business which ought not to engross the attention of the House, when it was its duty to discuss matters of infinitely greater importance." Something Congress ought to keep in mind when debating the next inevitable flag burning amendment—previous Congresses didn't even want to bother talking about the flag's design, never mind fret over those misguided enough to burn one. (I'm glad Flag Day is unofficial; enforced honor loses significance.)
After complaining, Congress gave the flag 15 stars and stripes. It stayed that way for a quarter century, despite the addition of five more states, until 1818, when the prospect of an ever more striped flag brought about the current scheme of holding steady at 13 stripes, adding one more star with each new state, on the July 4 after that state is admitted.
Which means, if you are my age—I just turned 52—or older, you can amaze children by informing them that you are older than the American flag, the current version of which became official on July 4, 1960, when executive order No. 10834 went into effect, giving the flag a 50th star to reflect the admission of Hawaii the previous August.
Have a great Flag Day; fly it if you got it.
"There is the national flag," Sen. Charles Sumner once wrote. "He must be cold, indeed, who can look upon its folds rippling in the breeze without pride of country."
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 14, 2012