Today in History

Today in History: June 14

Flag Day

Betsy Ross
The Birth of Old Glory [detail],
Percy Moran, artist, copyright 1917.
Prints & Photograph Online Catalog

Resolved, that the Flag of the thirteen United States shall be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars, white on a blue field, representing a new constellation.

June 14, 1777,
in Journals of the Continental Congress.
A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875

On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress approved the design of a national flag.

Since 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson issued a presidential proclamation establishing a national Flag Day on June 14, Americans have commemorated the adoption of the Stars and Stripes by celebrating June 14 as Flag Day. Prior to 1916, many localities and a few states had been celebrating the day for years. Congressional legislation designating that date as the national Flag Day was signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1949; the legislation also called upon the president to issue a flag day proclamation every year.

According to legend, in 1776, George Washington commissioned Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross to create a flag for the new nation. Scholars debate this legend, but agree that Mrs. Ross most likely knew Washington and sewed flags. To date, there have been twenty-seven official versions of the flag, but the arrangement of the stars varied according to the flag-makers' preferences until 1912 when President Taft standardized the then-new flag's forty-eight stars into six rows of eight. The forty-nine-star flag (1959-60), as well as the fifty-star flag, also have standardized star patterns. The current version of the flag dates to July 4, 1960, after Hawaii became the fiftieth state on August 21, 1959.

Central High School
School Children at Central High III,
Prince George's County, Maryland,
Theodor Horydczak, photographer,
circa 1920-50.
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

Central High School
School Children at Central High I,
Prince George's County, Maryland,
Theodor Horydczak, photographer,
circa 1920-50.
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

a poster for flag day with a stylized American flag on it
Elmhurst flag day, June 18, 1939, Du Page County centennial / Beauparlant.
Chicago, Ill.: WPA Federal Art Project, 1939.
By the People, For the People: Posters from the WPA, 1936-1943

Interviews in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 contain entertaining examples of Flag Day in the American vernacular. For example, a search on Flag Day retrieves the following conversation between Mr. Richmond and Mr. Davis:

"Why ain't you got your flag out?" says Mr. Richmond, entering the gas station in which he spends much of his time these days. "You know today is flag day, don't you?"

"I guess the boss forgot to buy a flag, George," says Mr. Davis, the station attendant. "And even if we had one, we ain't got no place to put it."

Mr. Richmond: "That's a fine state of affairs, that is. Here they are tryin' to bring home to you people the fact that you're livin' in one of the few countries where you can draw a free breath and you don't even know it. You're supposed to have flags out all this week. Don't you know that? This is flag day and this is flag week. Where's your patriotism?"

Mr. Davis: "What the hell are you hollerin' about, George? You're always runnin' the country down. They can't do anything to suit you. You're worryin' about taxes and future generations and all like that. Where's your patriotism?"

Mr. Richmond: "Well, that's different. A man got a right to criticize. That's free speech. Don't mean I ain't patriotic."

"Richmond," circa 1936-40.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

First page of Billy Gobitas' letter
Letter, Billy Gobitas to Minersville, Pennsylvania School Directors,
November 5, 1935.
Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division's First 100 Years

"I do not salute the flag because I have promised to do the will of God," wrote ten-year-old Billy Gobitas, a Jehovah's Witness, to the board of the Minersville (Pennsylvania) School District in 1935. Like most public school students at that the time, Gobitas was required to salute and pledge allegiance to the flag daily. His refusal to do so touched off one of several constitutional battles over the authority of the state to require respect for national symbols and the right of individuals to freedom of speech.

Both the United States district court and the court of appeals ruled in favor of the right to refuse to salute the flag. In 1940, however, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the government did have the authority to compel respect for the flag as a central symbol of national unity. Just three years later, on June 14, 1943, the Supreme Court reconsidered its earlier decision, holding that the right of free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment denies the government the authority to compel individuals to salute the American flag or to recite the pledge of allegiance.

Billy Gobitas' letter is displayed in the online exhibition, American Treasures of the Library of Congress. Other related treasures include Francis Scott Key's "Star-Spangled Banner" and John Philip Sousa's "The Stars and Stripes Forever."

Flag Day, Ft. Sam Houston, Texas
Flag Day, Fort Sam Houston, Texas,
June 14, 1918.
Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991