Cover image: Old Glory from Wikimedia Commons


    On June 14, 1777, during America’s War of Independence, John Adams introduced a resolution before the Continental Congress in Philadelphia mandating a United States flag, stating: “Resolved, that the flag of the thirteen United States shall be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white on a blue field, representing a new constellation.” Subsequently, the Stars and Stripes were adopted as America’s official national flag. 

    It is traditionally accepted that in 1776 George Washington commissioned Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross to create a flag for the new nation. The evidence is compelling but not conclusive. Some scholars credit the flag’s design to Francis Hopkinson, who also designed the Great Seal and first coin of the United States. Though historical accounts vary to some extent, there is no doubt that both Ross and Hopkinson contributed to our nation in their own ways.

    Congress assigned no specific meanings to the flag’s colors in 1777, but the Great Seal of the United States gave some indication of the symbolism. Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, stated that the seal’s colors “are those used in the flag of the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence; Red signifies hardiness and valor; and Blue signifies vigilance, perseverance, and justice.” A book published by the House of Representatives in 1977 states that “the star is a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial; the stripe is symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the sun.” To date, there have been twenty-seven official versions of the flag. The current version dates to July 4, 1960, after Hawaii became the fiftieth state in 1959. It’s interesting and I think important to note that the design for the new 50-star American flag is credited to a 17-year-old Lancaster, Ohio history student, Robert G. Heft. His flag design was a history class project in 1958. He used his mother’s sewing machine to make it and did so on the expectation that Alaska and Hawaii would become the next two states. He received a grade of B-. However, when he sent his design to the White House, President Eisenhower was so impressed, he selected Hefts as the new American flag from among thousands of entrees. Afterwards, Heft’s teacher, Stanley Pratt, upgraded his B- to an A. Pratt conceded, “I guess if it’s good enough for Washington, it’s good enough for me.” Only in America! 

    The first official large-scale celebration of our flag came about on June 14, 1877, on the flag’s centennial anniversary. From this time on, celebrating “Old Glory” became an annual event over much of the country. In 1885 Bernard J. Cigrand, a Wisconsin schoolteacher, began encouraging his students to observe June 14 as “Flag Birthday.” He later wrote an essay published in a Chicago newspaper that urged Americans to proclaim this date as the day to celebrate the flag. For more than forty years, Cigrand persistently continued his crusade to have June 14 designated for the national observance of the birth of the American flag. 

     One hundred thirty-two years ago, June 14, 1891, from the efforts of George Balch, a New York City school teacher and composer of the first version of our Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. Flag, ‘Flag Day’ was officially adopted by the New York State Board of Education. During the next 30 years, many other state and local governments would adopt the annual observance while other patriotic groups, including the Colonial Dames and the Sons of the American Revolution, worked to convince Congress to make Flag Day an official nationwide observance. At last, in May 1916, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation calling for a nationwide observance of Flag Day on June 14. It wasn’t, however, until 1949, seventeen years after Cigrand’s death, that congressional legislation was signed into law by President Harry Truman, officially designating June 14 as National Flag Day. As he should be, Bernard Cigrand is widely recognized as the “Father of Flag Day.”

     Ever since I can remember, our flag has been often referred to as Old Glory. Have you ever wondered when and where our flag picked up this nickname? William Driver, a shipmaster from Salem, Massachusetts, received a homemade flag with 24 stars in 1824, sewn for him by his mother and young lady admirers to celebrate his appointment, at the age of just 21, as a master mariner and commander of his own ship, the Charles Doggett. According to legend, when Driver raised the flag up the main mast, he lifted his hat and exclaimed, “My ship, my country, and my flag, Old Glory.” However, no evidence has been found to substantiate such a pronouncement. More likely, he named the flag when reflecting on his adventurous 20-year career as an American merchant seaman who sailed extensively throughout various parts of the world. He kept his flag for many years, protecting it during the Civil War until it was flown over the Tennessee capitol. In his words, “It has ever been my staunch companion and protection. Savages and heathens, lowly and oppressed, hailed and welcomed it at the far end of the wide world. Then, why should it not be called Old Glory?” 

    Old Glory is much more than a symbol. Flying so gallantly from on high, she emphatically implores us to a remembrance and understanding of the arduous journey of a nation, a people struggling toward the fulfillment of the ideals expressed in our Declaration of Independence and for the cause of individual freedom, liberty under law and justice for all. Today we need Old Glory more than ever as a reminder of our heritage and inheritance and of the sacrifice in blood and treasure it has cost to preserve them.

     Perhaps a fitting and sobering question to ask ourselves on this occasion would be: Am I the kind of American worthy of the magnitude of sacrifices made for my freedom? This will be answered in the months and years ahead, and that answer will determine whether the American Republic endures.  

Author Jeff Olson Hot Springs Village

Jeff Olson, Author