Taking the Vex out of Vexillology: Correcting Five Myths about the U.S. National Flag

Countries around the world have routinely changed their flag colors or designs to correspond to political upheaval, independence or because, well, they just can. No country’s flag, however, has undergone more changes over its history than that of the United States of America.

The reason? Stars were added to the flag every time a new state was officially admitted. From the original 13 stars adopted in 1777, the flag has officially changed its design 27 times, including the current one of 50 stars adopted in 1960.

There are myths attached to the history, meaning and flying of the United States national flag.

By 1942, respect for the flag and how it is displayed, honored, folded or discarded became Public Law 77-623, chapter 435. There are a number of guidelines many should follow if respect for the national flag is paramount. The Wikipedia entry provides a general understanding of the proper uses of the U.S. national flag.

While the public law is only advisory and not compulsory, it does allow casual users of the U.S. flag to show the proper respect as defined by military and civilian organizations such as the American Legion and others. For example, with more current updates, homeowner associations can no longer restrict the display of the U.S. national flag on its properties and allows the flag to be flown at half-staff or for a military salute for a member of the military without the approval of the governor or the mayor of the District of Columbia.

Still, there are myths attached to the flying of the national flag that should be addressed.

Myth 1:

Each Star and Colors of the Flag of the United States Have a Special Meaning

When the U. S. national flag was authorized by the House of Representatives in 1777, there was never any mention as to the meaning of the red, white and blue colors or even how the stars were to be arranged.

On June 14, 1777, the Marine Committee of the House of Representatives passed a resolution authorizing an official design for a national flag intended for use by U.S. naval vessels at sea. The complete resolution states that: “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.” And that was it. There was never any mention as to the meaning of the red, white and blue colors or even how the stars were to be arranged.

Instead, it is the Great Seal of the United States, adopted in 1782, whose colors have special meaning. According to the designer, Secretary of the Continental Congress Charles Thompson, the color red signifies hardiness and valor, white signifies purity and innocence, and blue signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice.

Many social and military service organizations, such as the Boy Scouts and the Veteran of Foreign Wars, assign similar meaning to the colors of the U.S. flag, but they are similar to that of the Great Seal of the United States. Some have even suggest that the stars represent each of the states as they entered the Union, but neither the original resolution nor the Flag Code give any special meaning to any of the stars.

Myth 2:

The Gold Fringe on the U.S. Flag makes it a Military Flag

Some believe the use of gold fringe on a United State flag is intended to show that the United States is under a military dictatorship. This is false.

This misconception comes up now and again to suggest that the use of gold fringe on a United State flag is intended to show that the United States is under a military dictatorship, is extra-constitutional or is subject to foreign powers. It’s true that the military, government offices and courtrooms display U.S. national flags with gold fringe, but then so do corporations, individuals, social organizations, schools and even churches.

A U.S. Marine Corps history of the flag says that the fringe was added to honor French help during the Second World War. However, there has been discussion of gold fringe on the U.S. flag as far back as 1825. The Army Institute of Heraldry—the keeper of the official flag design—the attorney general of the United States and several court opinions suggest that the fringe has no specific designation. So, what is the final word for the use of gold fringe on the U.S. flag? It looks good. Let it go, already.

Myth 3:

The Flag Needs to be Burned when it Touches the Ground

A flag-burning ceremony conducted by a Cub Scout pack. The National Flag Code says that only when the flag is beyond repair should it be discarded, preferably by burning.

Until the late 19th century, regular American citizens hardly ever flew the national flag. In fact, unless you made it yourself, you never even owned one. Only the military and the national government, for the most part, ever even issued the U.S. national flag, and that was for identification only. Not until the Centennial of the United States in 1876 did the U.S. national flag get any real attention. After that the flag began being used in political campaigns and in advertising more and more—usually with images and advertising directly printed onto the image of the flag.

By 1942, a group of civil organizations came together to create a National Flag Code that outlined the proper uses of the flag. The code suggests, for example, that when a flag is soiled or damaged it can be washed or repaired. If the flag falls to the ground, it should be picked up, dusted off and continue to be flown with pride. Only when the flag is beyond repair should it be discarded, preferably by burning. Take all unserviceable national flags to any civil or service organization, such as the Boy Scouts or a VFW or GAR post for proper disposition. The Flag Code also doesn’t require that the flag be folded into three corners, among other things. That’s really a military and Boy Scout ceremony.

Myth 4:

The Flag was Designed by Betsy Ross after a Suggestion by George Washington

Charles Weisgerber’s 1893 painting of “The Birth of the Flag,” reinforced the story told by Ross’ grandchild, William Canby. Since no images of Ross existed, Weisgerber created her face from photographs of her daughters and other female relatives. (Photo: Pennsylvania State Museum)

First of all, it is true that George Washington by 1776, was commander of the Continental Army. It is also true that Elizabeth “Betsy” Ross did make flags for the Philadelphia Navy Yard, but then so did many women at the time. The story that Ross designed the first flag was passed along by Ross’ grandchild, William Canby, just before the 1876 Centennial. Canby says he was told the story directly from his grandmother, Betsy Ross.

By World War II, further research shows that there is no credible evidence, such as invoices, payment receipts or government records, to suggest any contact had been made with Elizabeth Ross to design or create the first flag. In fact, it has been determined that not only was the circle of stars she was supposed to have created was never officially used and the house she was supposedly living in at the time may not be the exact one. So much about the story of the first flag is purely speculative, yet it persists to some degree. So who did create the design for the first flag? It is credited to Congressman Frances Hopkinson, who eventually billed the U.S. Congress for one-quarter of the public wine for his services (he was never paid). And the star pattern he created was three rows of three stars with a row of two stars between each row of the three six-pointed stars—but changed later to five-pointed stars. Not sure why, but it’s the very first national flag to feature one.

Myth 5:

The Flag can be Flown at Half-Staff at any Time

The flag is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position. (Photo: www.flaginsider.com)

Well, no. In fact, not just anyone can order the U.S. national flag to fly at half-staff (or half-mast on ships and U.S. Naval facilities). According to the Flag Code, only the president, the governors of the separate states, and the mayor of the District of Columbia can officially declare the flag be flown at half-staff in time of mourning and only for specified times and specific individuals. If an individual or private entity, such as a corporation or civic group, wants to honor one of their own with a flag at half-staff, as long as it isn’t displayed on public property, the Flag Code suggests that a black ribbon be placed at the top of the U.S. flag itself or black bunting be placed on the buildings entrance. You can lower your corporate or group flag to half-staff, though, but not the U.S. flag. To properly place the U.S. flag at half-staff, raise it to the top, then lower it to a midway point (to retire the flag at sunset, raise it up to the top, then lower to the bottom).

Tom Carrier is a general Worthologist, with an expertise in a wide variety of subjects, including vexillology, or the study of flags.

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