With America’s birthday coming up, a lot of people are thinking about what Independence Day means to them. For some, it is as simple as fireworks and a cookout. For others, it is a more emotional day, set aside for remembrance. Many more meanings exist, but for most, it is a celebration of this country, and all the things for which it stands. It is also a celebration of the things that stand for the United States, primarily the red, white, and blue of the American Flag. The flag seems rather straight-forward, but it is more than just an icon. It holds many symbolic meanings, from its place as a piece of history, to victory and as a final honor.
Interestingly enough, when the nation first petitioned for independence in 1776, there was not an official flag to represent the young country. This overlooked matter was quickly rectified, less than a year later, in 1777, when the Continental Congress enacted the Flag Act which established the basis for today’s flag. The Flag Act called for thirteen stripes of alternating red and white, along with a field of blue set with thirteen stars. At this time, proportions were not determined and precise shades were not mandated.
It did not take long for orders to be made that would change the flag. In 1794, a new act called for the addition of two stripes and two stars to the flag. Again, in 1818, things changed when the quantity of stripes returned to thirteen, but an additional star was added for each new state that joined the union. President Taft, in 1912, signed an order that stipulated specific proportions for the American flag, along with the arrangement of the stars in six horizontal lines of eight, with one of the five points of each star pointing upward. As more states and stars were added, their line up changed, likely for aesthetic’s sake. President Eisenhower called for the change of the star’s assembly twice in the same year. In January of 1959, the stars were to be placed in seven lines of seven, in alternating horizontal and vertical lines. Eisenhower’s second order, in August 1959, called for the flag to have eleven vertical rows and nine horizontal, again alternating. The flag has not changed since this final order and, consequently, it is the one that flies today.
The flag has very clear historic connotations. It is a reminder of all the great American values: bravery, courage, freedom, integrity, and unity. Often, when such values are being most obviously displayed, the flag is in the background. That fact is, perhaps, a result of the flag as a symbol of victory. Most Americans today can remember, with vivid detail, the photo of New York City firemen hoisting up the American flag over the ruins of 9/11. That flag, although raised in tragedy, showed the world that the United States would not cower in fear. And who doesn’t know the photograph, taken in Iwo Jima in 1945, of American soldiers raising the flag in victory, during World War II? When bravery and integrity was best being demonstrated, resulting in a victory for all Americans, the flag was waving proudly.
Members of the American military fight every day for the victory that the flag symbolizes and so, when they pass away, a flag ceremony marks their final honor. Depending on if, at the time of passing, the service member was active duty or a veteran, the United States Army or Department of Veteran Affairs, respectively, will provide the flag. In either case, the flag is folded and placed over the casket, with the field of blue covering the head and left shoulder. The flag is not buried with the service member, but it is the traditional, final honor of a protector of the United States.
It is easy, especially during this time of year, to see the colors of the flag as holiday decorations, or colors without any real meaning, but that would be a wildly inaccurate assumption. Red, white, and blue are the colors of what is likely to be America’s most widely recognized symbol. Those colors represent history, victory and honor, along with the most admirable characteristics of the best of Americans.