| The Stars and Stripes Are Born
June 14, 1777
The origin of the American flag is not quite as spectacular as that of the Danish flag, Dannebrog, which fell from Heaven at the battle of Lindanaes in 1219, but it may be as legendary. It was, surprisingly enough, not until June 14, 1777, that Congress adopted an American flag of “thirteen stripes alternate red and white, that the Union be thirteen stars white in a blue field representing a new constellation.” The tradition that Washington himself asked Betsy Ross, a war widow who kept an upholsterer’s shop in Philadelphia to sew the flag, however, was first launched by her grandson in 1870. Yet it may well be valid - after all, the Pennsylvania Naval Board had paid her 14 pounds, 12 shillings and 2 pence for making “ship’s colors.” And it was aboard ship - John Paul Jones flew the new flag on The Ranger - that the national banner was first used. Widely accepted, the flag knew many designs until 1818, when Congress decided on its final form and dimensions - one star for every state in the Union, and thirteen stripes.
The adoption of a national flag was part of a much larger and more significant enterprise; that of providing the new nation with the symbols and insignia, the heroes and villains, the legends and stories and songs traditionally associated with nationalism - and so essential to a new people without a national past. In short, a Usable Past was created. Betsy Ross was as much a necessary part of that past as was Captain Parker at Lexington Common, or Washington at Valley Forge, or Mad Anthony Wayne at Stony Brook, or George Rogers Clark wading the swollen Wabash to capture British Vincennes, or the bands played “The World Turned Upside Down” at Yorktown; and along with these a much more credible legend that the unforgettable images supplied by Parson Weems of Washington chopping down a cherry tree, or better yet, his entering heaven.