The History of Flag Day

“Hey, c’mon. It’s Flag Day!”

Patrick Grubbs, assistant dean of humanities and social sciences,

In the first two seasons of the iconic sitcom Friends, Monica dates a man the gang nicknamed "Fun Bobby," giving viewers the impression that he is the life of the party. Viewers soon find out, however, that Bobby is an alcoholic, and the only reason he is "fun" is because he is always drinking. When Monica confronts Bobby about his drinking, he tells her, "I always made excuses, like, 'I'm just a social drinker,' or, 'Hey, c'mon. It’s Flag Day!'" The joke lands perfectly as the audience knows that Flag Day is not traditionally a reason to celebrate with libations. But of all the public (Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Groundhog Day, etc.) and non-traditional (Star Wars Day, VCR Day, Waffle Iron Day, etc.) holidays on our calendars, maybe Flag Day deserves a little more attention from Americans, and particularly Pennsylvanians.

On June 14, 1777, in the midst of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress approved the first official flag of the United States. That day Congress resolved "that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes alternate red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars white in a blue field, representing a new constellation." This flag, ultimately known as the Betsy Ross flag, symbolized the union of the thirteen American states at war with Britain.

The official adoption of this flag came just weeks before the first anniversary of America’s independence, but the law constituting this flag was not published until September 1777. The first time the official flag was unfurled by the Army was during the surrender of General John Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga on October 17, 1777. The original flag of thirteen stars and thirteen stripes remained until Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee joined the union in the 1790s. Initially, one star and one stripe were added for each new state, but soon there was a realization that this would be too cumbersome (and potentially aesthetically unpleasing).   On April 4, 1818, Congress passed a law stating that after July 4 of that year, the flag would remain with thirteen stripes, but a star would be added to a field of blue for each new state added to the union.  That addition would happen on July 4 the succeeding year.

For the centennial celebration of the flag in 1876, many states held days of observance and some newspapers called the flag to be raised "on every fort and arsenal and ship of war, and saluted with the national salute, and public buildings and private dwellings be decorated with the 'red, white, and blue.'" [1] The Philadelphia Inquirer published a poem for the 100th anniversary of the Stars and Stripes that contained the following lines:

Fling out the dear old flag to-day!

O'er land and sea throw up the stars,

Whose glory-flash lit up the way

Through which our brave young son of Mars

Defiance flung

And vict'ry wrung

One hundred years ago!

 

Calls for tributes to the flag are epitomized in the following articles. The first passage from the Vermont Watchman and State Journal states that "the celebration of this day in this manner will be simply appropriate, and result in the creation of a heartier love for the dear old flag of our fathers, and carry it down to untold generations as the 'symbol of freedmen and freedom.'" [2] The second from Rutland Daily Herald asked the readers to "teach your children about the flag – about the things it stands for, the great memories it guards, the men who have died for it. The talk will do them good, and it will do you good, too." [3] These articles encapsulate the desire for a national day of observance of the flag. It was to be a day to reflect on what the American flag represented, not only to America's founders, but to the future. In essence, it was to be a symbolic touchstone for the best qualities of America.

Then, in 1885, a country school teacher named Bernard Cigrand held an observance of Flag Day at Stony Hill Schoolhouse in Wisconsin, marking the beginning of a quest for national recognition of Flag Day. For this celebration, Cigrand placed a small flag in a glass jar on his desk and graduating students handed in papers assigned to them on the subject of the American flag. The following year, Cigrand made a public appeal in a Chicago newspaper for the national observance of "Flag-Birth-Day." For the next four decades, Cigrand gave numerous public addresses to support the idea of Flag Day and, in 1894, he founded the American Flag Day Association in Chicago. He was not the only man to take up the cause. Alongside Cigrand was Pennsylvanian William T. Kerr, whose family claims that he began promoting Flag Day in 1882 when he was fourteen years old. That year, the Pittsburgh youth gave a Fourth of July speech in Chicago where he pondered why there was no day set aside to honor the flag. [4] Like Cigrand, Kerr spent the next few decades making speeches, promoting school celebrations of the day, and petitioning congressmen and U.S. presidents to adopt Flag Day as a national holiday. By the end of the century, Cigrand stood as the president of the National American Flag Day Association; Kerr was president of the American Flag Day Association in Pittsburgh; and Flag Day celebrations accelerated throughout the country. 

While seemingly never working in unison, Cigrand’s and Kerr’s combined efforts finally paid off on May 30, 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson called for a nation-wide observance of Flag Day on June 14 that year. Wilson proclaimed, just eleven months before the United States entered World War I, that "it is henceforth to stand for self-possession, for dignity, for the assertion of the right of one nation to serve the other nations of the world – an emblem that will not condescend to be used for the purposes of aggression and self-aggrandizement; that is too great to be debased by selfishness; that has vindicated its right to be honored by all nations of the world and feared by none who do righteousness." [5] Cigrand passed away in May 1932, but Kerr continued the fight for further recognition of the Stars and Stripes. In 1937, Pennsylvania became the first and only state to recognize Flag Day as a legal holiday, closing banks and government offices. The epitome of Kerr's effort came in 1949 when President Truman signed legislation declaring June 14 National Flag Day - though not an official federal holiday.

Cigrand was honored by the state of Wisconsin in 1946. At his memorial, Wisconsin Chief Justice Marvin B. Rosenberry asked, "Why did [Cigrand] attach so much importance to having a day set apart when Americans might pay special homage to the national emblem?" To which Rosenberry answered, "[Flags] have long since come to have a wider and more important significance. They have become symbolic of nations…I would like to think he did so to remind the people, not only of this country, but of all other countries, whenever or wherever they see our flag, of the things for which it stands; to recall to them the fact that the flag was born out of a war to establish freedom of the people of this country which became a haven of hope for oppressed people everywhere." [6] These words ring especially true for America in June 2020.

Rosenberry continued that, overall, the flag stands for the fundamental principles on which the government was founded, principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. However, Rosenberry warned, there are times where people grow indifferent to their responsibilities as citizens of the United States, responsibilities such as adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue. With this comment, Rosenberry closed the circle on the importance of Flag Day to a nation. Flag Day should be observed by citizens of the United States not just to reflect on their nation, its founding principles, and the highlights and lowlights of their nation. It should also be a day for Americans to self-reflect on whether they have upheld their duties, or responsibilities, as citizens of the United States. Or, as John F. Kennedy famously stated in his 1961 inaugural address, "Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country."

Maybe if we paid a bit more attention to the meaning of Flag Day, we as a nation might not be as divisive as we now find ourselves. Maybe if we allowed Flag Day to serve as a day of reflection, not only on the nation, but on its citizens, we might stand more closely united today (with six feet of distance and a mask). Maybe if we embraced a day of national contemplation- on the meaning of the United States and what the flag symbolizes not just to us, but to the world, we might have overcome many of our domestic turmoil in a timelier fashion; maybe we'd have better leaders. Maybe then the joke doesn't land and the audience wonders why writers would mock a day of national reflection.

 

[1] "Flag Day," Vermont Watchman and State Journal (Montpelier, VT.), June 13, 1877.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rutland Daily Herald (Rutland, Vermont), June 20, 1883.

[4] The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA.), June 12, 1982.

[5] Beckley Post-Herald (Beckley, WV), June 14, 1949.

[6] The Sheboygan Press (Sheboygan, WI), June 14, 1946.