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June 14, 2006

Flag Day

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Today is Flag Day in the United States. The Second Continental Congress passed the "Flag Act of 1777" on June 14 that year. It is a mere 32 words: "Resolved, that the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation."

Originally, the purpose of this Congress was to continue negotiations with Great Britain over the "Intolerable Acts," hopefully. The First Continental Congress drafted the "Articles of Association," in 1774, in a furtive attempt to mitigate England's policies towards the colonies. Severing the relationship with England was not part of the plan at the time.

Nevertheless, by the time the Second Continental Congress had convened in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775, the American Revolution had begun. The Battles of Lexington and Concord, had taken place just two weeks before - on April 19.

The situation was quickly dim for the home team. Instead of conducting economic negotiations with the most powerful nation on the planet, the Second Continental Congress found itself at war. At its disposal it had a non-existent army, no money and perhaps the support of less than half of the population - on a good day.

Exactly two years before the Flag Act - on June 14, 1775 - the Congress had established the United States Army. Ten companies of "expert riflemen" were originally authorized - approximately 800 soldiers. On June 15, 1775, George Washington was chosen to head the Continental Army. The delegate who nominated George Washington was Frederick's own Thomas Johnson.

One of the immediate challenges for General Washington was to negotiate with a congressional committee in September 1775 for more soldiers, equipment and supplies. Factionalism plagued Congress and regionalism challenged the military. The agreement reached with Congress was ultimately unsatisfactory.

According to the U. S. Army's American Military History, "A Continental Army had been formed, but it fell far short of the goals Washington and Congress had set for it. This army was enlisted for but a year and the whole troublesome process would have to be repeated at the end of 1776. The short term of enlistment was, of course, a cardinal error; but in 1775 everyone, including Washington, had anticipated only a short campaign."

Meanwhile, a representative from New Jersey, Francis Hopkinson is accepted by history to have been the designer of the first flag. He was a poet and an artist, who began serving on the Continental Navy Board in November 1776. It was in this capacity that Congressman Hopkinson began work on "admiralty colors."

Tradition has it that Philadelphia flag maker Betsy Ross was also involved in the design and manufacture of one of the first flags. The May 29, 1777, minutes of the "Board of War" meeting recites: "... an Order on William Webb to Elizabeth Ross, for fourteen pounds, twelve shillings, two pence for making ships colours & put into William Richards' stores."

Hopefully she got paid.

Congressman Hopkinson billed the "Board of Admiralty" in 1780 for his work on "'the flag of the United States of America as well as several ornaments, devices, and checks appearing on bills of exchange, ship papers, the seals of the boards of Admiralty and Treasury, and the Great Seal of the United States. Hopkinson had received nothing for this work, and now he submitted a bill and asked 'whether a Quarter Cask of the public wine' would not be a reasonable and proper reward for his labors."

A congressional committee was appointed to investigate Congressman Hopkinson 's request for payment. It summoned witnesses and took testimony. "Only the men of the Board of Treasury ignored the summons. In its report to Congress, the committee recommended that the present board be dismissed."

On August 23, 1781, Congress passed a resolution that the congressman, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, be paid. Ultimately he was never paid, not because it was disputed that he did the work, but because his political adversaries prevailed to deny him payment.

Bear in mind, that there was a war going on. At the same time the members of Congress and a congressional committee were haggling over whether Congressman Hopkinson should be paid, the final military maneuvers of the war were being conducted in Virginia.

The fate of the war was in the balance in August 1781 when French Admiral François Joseph Paul, Marquis de Grasse Tilly arrived from the Caribbean, blockaded the Chesapeake Bay and pinned British General Charles Lord Cornwallis down at Yorktown. General Cornwallis surrendered October 19, 1781.

Only by the Grace of God did our nation survive, in spite of ourselves and members of Congress.

Reportedly, Congress wrote of the flag in 1777: "White signifies Purity and Innocence; Red, Hardiness and Valor; Blue signifies Vigilance, Perseverance and Justice."

Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane said of the flag, at a Flag Day speech in 1914: "I am what you make me; nothing more. I swing before your eyes as a bright gleam of color, a symbol of yourself. It is up to us to mold our country's future into what you make me; nothing more."

The flag has changed and our nation has survived, but the banner has remained a constant reminder of the sacrifices that have been made to maintain the freedoms, liberties and way of life of this great experiment we call the United States of America.

Hopefully, you and your family will take a moment today to reflect upon the flag and pray that we not take the hard work this nation faces for granted.

May we persevere and remain vigilant for our future.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster:E-mail him at: kdayhoff@carr.org



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