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Stars and Stripes

Tomorrow is June 14 — Flag Day — and what better time to remind ourselves of a bit of the history of the Stars and Stripes?

“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 was the resolution passed by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777, establishing a new flag for the new nation. Although it may seem strange now, troops commanded by George Washington had already fought, albeit briefly, under a “Grand Union” flag consisting of red and white stripes but bearing the British Union Jack in the upper corner, instead of stars on a blue field.

At any rate, Congress made no mention of how those stars should be laid out, but the original 13 were easily arranged in a circle. This design is generally attributed to Betsy Ross, working at Washington’s behest.

Old Glory has been changed many times since then, however, as new states were admitted to the Union. The last two stars, representing Alaska and Hawaii, were added in 1959. Officially, specific stars do not stand for specific states, but here in Connecticut it may be convenient to think of the fifth star as “ours,” since this was the fifth state to ratify the Constitution.

One detail many of us may have missed is that the field of stars is supposed to represent “a new constellation” in the firmament. But if that seems a bit hoity-toity, it’s not inconsistent with the huge fresco that adorns the dome of our nation’s Capitol — “Apotheosis of Washington” — which depicts our first president ascending to heaven to join the other gods.

Even if that’s a few too many gods for some of us, we understand the sentiment: It was a new day; a new nation was taking its place in the world.

As for the origin of Flag Day, there are several claims out there, including that the first was a celebration held in Hartford in the summer of 1861. Then there are those who credit New York City, where patriotic ceremonies were held on June 14, 1889. The state of New York recognized the holiday in 1897. And in 1893 the Society of Colonial Dames got Philadelphia to adopt June 14 as a holiday. The state of Pennsylvania didn’t follow suit until 1937, but it’s the only state that recognizes Flag Day as a legal holiday.

Then there is Bernard J. Cigrand, a school teacher in Waubeka, Wisc., who reportedly spent years trying to get Congress to make June 14 a national holiday. Many consider him the father of Flag Day, but there are also those who credit William T. Kerr, a Pittsburgh schoolboy who founded the American Flag Day Association in 1888.

But it wasn’t until Aug. 3, 1949, that Congress established the national observance and President Harry Truman signed it into law.

For more about Flag Day and flag etiquette, see www.legion.org or www.vfw.org.



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