Origin and Meaning of the Colors on the Flag of the United States
The records show that since the United States gained independence in 1776, the U.S. flag has had 27 iterations or versions. But the one thing that has never changed is the set of colors on the U.S. flag ( commonly called Old Glory).
The American flag’s colors of red, white, and blue have been hoisted and flown proudly by some of the bravest people in history. Those colors have even made it to the moon on countless occasions. And every 4th of July, we all make merry celebrating the amazing feats of achievement that have been done in the name of this flag. However, very few of us know exactly why and how those colors on the American Flag came about? And what do those colors symbolize?
In order to answer the above questions, a quick delve into the origin and meaning of the colors on the American Flag is required.
The Meaning of the Colors on the American Flag
We will begin by going back memory lane to the year 1777. The exact date was June 14, 1777. The Marine Committee of the Second Continental Congress had just passed a resolution to govern the official flag of the newly born nation. The resolution read as:
And just like that, the American flag took her first breaths. Try picturing yourself at that particular spot when the resolution was read. The euphoria and excitement would dwarf any 4th of July celebration that you have ever witnessed. Even though the resolution was succinctly clear as a whistle, it did not contain any official explanation as to why those specific colors were adopted. To discover the rationale behind this, we need to go a year further back to 1776.
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Prior to the first flag resolution, Continental Congress had set up a committee to come up with a seal for the country. The guiding framework of this committee was to select a seal that was in harmony with the core values and ideals of the Founding Fathers. The committee strongly believed that red, white and blue were the most appropriate colors for the nation’s seal. Let’s leave it to Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, to explain why those particular colors were chosen during the design of the seal.
So red, white and blue: the colors of the new nation! You might ask, aren’t those colors similar to the ones on the Union Jack, the flag of Great Britain? Some historians hold the view that the red, white and blue were taken directly from Britain. But why?
The most reasonable explanation is that because most of the Founding Fathers grew up under the British Crown, it is possible that they subconsciously adopted the Crown’s colors onto the new American flag. This makes absolute sense because prior to the flag resolution, George Washington and his troops had even flown an unofficial flag that bore the Union Jack on the left-hand side of a red and white striped flag.
The history books hardly focus any attention on the colors and their meaning. What gets most of the attention are the stars and stripes. And as we all know, those stars have long been used to represent the number of states in the Union. While the 13 stripes represent the 13 original colonies that found the United States of America. Aside from these numeric meanings attached to the Star and Stripes, there exist several symbolic interpretations for the “Old Glory” (American flag). The most famous one comes from a 1977 book of the House of Representative. In the book, the House interpreted the stars and stripes on the American flag as below:
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.
Thomson’s specific explanation of the symbolism of the colors on the U.S flag and seal may not be known to most Americans. However, we believe that Americans make up for this by embodying the same qualities that fueled the Founding Fathers’ pursuit of freedom, liberty, and justice.
Frequently asked questions about the flag of the U.S.
These commonly asked questions and their respective answers provide a concise overview on the flag of the United States:
Do the colors on the U.S. flag have specific meanings?
While the Continental Congress did not assign specific meanings to the colors when the flag was adopted in 1777, colors from the Great Seal of the United States did have meanings. White signifies purity and innocence; red signifies valor and bravery; and blue signifies vigilance, perseverance, and justice.
How many stripes are on the flag?
There are 13 stripes on the flag.
What do the stripes represent?
The stripes represent the original 13 colonies that declared independence from the British Crown.
Why are some stripes red and others white?
There’s no official reason given for why they alternate in color, but the design creates a visually distinct pattern.
How many stars are on the flag?
There are 50 stars on the current flag.
What do the stars represent?
Each star represents one of the 50 states in the United States.
Why are the stars white?
While there’s no official reason documented for the stars being white, the contrast between the blue field and the white stars is visually striking and represents unity and a bright future.
Has the number of stars on the flag always been 50?
No. The number of stars has changed over time as new states have been admitted to the Union. The original flag had 13 stars, corresponding to the 13 original colonies.
When was the current design of the flag with 50 stars adopted?
The current design was adopted on July 4, 1960, after Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959.
Do the colors on the flag have any other significance in American culture?
Red, white, and blue have come to symbolize American patriotism and are often used in various forms of expression and celebration, especially on national holidays like Independence Day.
Are there rules and customs about displaying the U.S. flag?
Yes. The United States has a series of codes and customs concerning the flag’s display, care, and respect. These guidelines are outlined in the U.S. Flag Code.
Has the design of the U.S. flag always been the same since its inception?
No. The design of the flag has changed multiple times, primarily to accommodate the addition of stars as new states were admitted.
How is the flag used during special ceremonies or holidays?
The flag plays a central role in many American ceremonies, holidays, and observances. It’s raised during the National Anthem, flown at half-staff to commemorate specific solemn occasions, and is central to holidays like Memorial Day, Flag Day, Veterans Day, and Independence Day.