This is National Flag Week (the week that includes Flag Day, June 14th), and so it might be a good time for us to learn a little more about our nation's flag and to teach our children some of the history of "Old Glory" as well.
Most of us tend to think of our flag - red, white and blue with 13 stripes and one star for each state - as having been the constant symbol of the United States from the time of the Revolution. But the early battles of the war were fought under a variety of flags featuring such diverse insignia as rattlesnakes, beavers, riflemen, pine trees, anchors and links of chain. They carried slogans such as "Liberty or Death," "Conquer or Die" and "Don't Tread on Me."It was almost a year after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence that a resolution was introduced before the Continental Congress (June 14, 1777) specifying that the flag of the United States be composed of 13 red and white stripes and 13 white stars on a blue field. But the resolution didn't specify any precise arrangement, and so the "Stars and Stripes" took on all manner of forms, and didn't achieve any measure of uniformity until well after the war had ended.
Even then there were significant changes in store for our national flag. Congress initially decided that each new state should be represented by the addition of a star and a stripe on the flag. So when Vermont (in 1791) and Kentucky (in 1792) were admitted to the union, the flag of the United States bore 15 stars and 15 stripes. This is the flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the "Star-Spangled Banner." This 15-stripe flag was also the one that Lewis and Clark carried across the continent in 1805, and the one under which Gen. Andrew Jackson defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans.
No one knows who originated the idea of having a red, white and blue flag featuring stars and stripes, but it's not very likely that Betsy Ross had anything to do with it. The story of how she helped George Washington design the flag first surfaced when she was 84 years old. On her deathbed in 1836, she related the tale to her grandson, William J. Canby, who was 11 at the time. Canby didn't write down his grandmother's recollections for almost 20 years, and he published the story 13 years after that (1870) - almost a hundred years after the meeting between the Philadelphia seamstress and Gen. Washington was supposed to have occurred.
So, in the matter of our flag's origin as well as in the other areas of history where fact and legend conflict, what do we tell our children - the fact or the legend? I say, both, but the legend first. These legends, even though they may be totally false, are part of our common culture, and children need to be familiar with them in order to understand the casual references to them that crop up in so many places outside the history books. You don't have to say that Betsy Ross actually created the first flag (or that there actually is a Santa Claus). But children who don't know that "some people believe Betsy Ross created our first flag" will be the poorer for it.
The flag can also be a constant source of reinforcement for some learnings about history and geography. For example, when you see the 13 stripes, can you recall the names of the 13 original colonies for which they stand? (Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island) When was your state admitted to the union, and how many stars were on the flag at that time? (Utah became the 45th state in 1896)