It’s arguably the world’s most easily-recognizable national standard. Not only that, but much more than a flag, it’s a symbol and a brand. Almost all Americans feel strongly patriotic, and in contrast to patriotic British citizens (who have all too readily surrendered the symbolism of the Union Jack to the far right and Ulster loyalists) they have no problems in flying the flag outside their homes. The Stars and Stripes as a symbol is also frequently seen on lapel badges and car stickers. It’s also regarded as a sacred emblem of the nation: it is not yet illegal to burn the flag in the US, but there remains an ongoing debate over whether to make it so.
The flag also inspired the composition of America’s national anthem. It was after the the US Army successfully defended Fort McHenry in Baltimore from the British forces in September 1814 (during the War of 1812) that the poet Francis Scott Key was inspired to write his most famous piece of verse “The Defence of Fort McHenry”. Later this would be sung to the tune of the song To Anacraeon in Heaven, written by the British composer John Stafford Smith (1750-1836), but not until 1931 would it be officially adopted as the United States’ national anthem.
The Stars-and-Stripes design was not the flag’s original design. At the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Continental Congress adopted for their national standard the design of thirteen alternately red-and-white stripes (one stripe for each of the rebel colonies), and the 1707 Union Flag, rather than stars, in the top-left corner. Then, at the second meeting of the Continental Congress, on 14 June 1776, it was decided that a new design, more properly reflective of a desire for independence from Britain, was needed. Thereafter, the national standard would consist of thirteen red-and-white stripes for the original Thirteen Colonies, and in the top-left corner would be a blue background for a star for each of the states of the Union as they were admitted. In 1777 this was thirteen; there would be 26 further modifications, with the present one in existence since 1960, when Hawaii gained statehood. The recent statehood referendum in Puerto Rico means a further modification could be required if Congress agrees to their admission.
One final thing to mention about the US flag: it may well have been (at least indirectly) a British invention! It now seems more likely, after all, that the name America derives not from the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, as has long been supposed, but actually from the Welsh merchant Richard Amerike (c: 1440-1503), who helped to finance John Cabot’s two voyages to North America in 1497-99. As if to add further meat to the theory, Amerike’s own personal coat of arms consisted of a design including stars and stripes….