Today, the American Eagle Silver Dollar Coin with Weinman’s design of “Liberty walking into the dawn of a new day” represents the dawn of a new year.
Weinman’s design draped Liberty in a flag, and on New Year’s day 239 years ago, General Washington raised the “Union flag” at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
To this day, the history of our flag remains a controversy.
In the Story of Our Flag, Colonial and National, published in 1898, Addie Guthrie Weaver described one historical version of that early Union flag and the subsequent thirteen stars and stripes flag.
The history of our flag from its inception, in fact, the inception itself, has been a source of much argument and great diversity of opinion. Many theories and mystifications have gone forth, mingled with a few facts, giving just enough color of truth to make them seem plausible.
It is for the purpose of clearing away the veil of doubt that hangs around the origin of the Stars and Stripes that this book has been written.
The Continental Congress in 1775 was very much disturbed over the embarrassing situation of the colonies, and after Washington was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Army, it showed its independence by appointing a committee composed of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Harrison and Mr. Lynch to create a colonial flag that would be national in its tendency.
They finally decided on one with thirteen bars, alternate red and white, the “King’s Colors” with the crosses of St. Andrew and St. George in a field of blue.
The cross of St. Andrew then, as now, was of white, while the cross of St. George was of red. The colonies still acknowledged the sovereignty of England — as this flag attested — but united against her tyranny.
This was known as the “flag of our union” — that is, the union of the colonies, and was not created until after the committee had been to the camp at Cambridge and consulted with Washington.
It was probably made either at the camp at Cambridge or in Boston, as it was unfurled by Washington under the Great Elm on January 1, 1776. It received thirteen cheers and a salute of thirteen guns.
It is not known whether Samuel Adams, the “Father of Liberty,” was consulted in regard to this flag, but it is a well known fact that he was looking forward, even then, to the independence of the colonies, while Washington, Franklin and the others still looked for justice, — tardy though it might be, — from England.
On the same day, the 1st of January, 1776, Washington received the King’s speech, and as it happened to come so near to the time of the adoption of the new flag, with the English crosses of St. Andrew and St. George, many of the regulars thought it meant submission, and the English seemed for the time to understand it so; but our army showed great indignation over the King’s speech to parliament, and burned all of the copies.
In a letter of General Washington to Joseph Reed, written January 4, he says:
“We are at length favored with the sight of his majesty’s most gracious speech, breathing sentiments of tenderness and compassion for his deluded American subjects. The speech I send you (a volume of them were sent out by the Boston gentry) was farcical enough and gave great joy to them without knowing or intending it, for on that day (the 1st) which gave being to our new army, but before the proclamation came to hand, we hoisted the Union flag, in compliment to the United Colonies, but behold it was received at Boston as a token of the deep impression the speech had made upon us and as a signal of submission. By this time I presume they begin to think it strange that we have not made a formal surrender of our lines.”
At this time the number and kinds of flags that were in use on land and sea, were only limited to the ingenuity of the state and military officials. This was very embarrassing.
On May 20, 1776, Washington was requested to appear before Congress on important secret military business. Major-General Putnam, according to Washington’s letters, was left in command at New York during his absence.
It was in the latter part of May, 1776, that Washington, accompanied by Colonel George Ross, a member of Congress and by the Honorable Robert Morris, the great financier of the revolution, called upon Mrs. Betsy Ross, a niece of Colonel Ross.
She was a young and beautiful widow, only twenty-four years of age, and known to be expert at needle work. They called to engage her services in preparing our first starry flag. She lived in a little house in Arch street, Philadelphia, which stands today unchanged, with the exception of one large window, which has been placed in the front.
It was here, in this house, that Washington unfolded a paper on which had been rudely sketched a plan of a flag of thirteen stripes, with a blue field dotted with thirteen stars.
They talked over the plan of this flag in detail, and Mrs. Ross noticed that the stars which were sketched were six-pointed, and suggested that they should have five points.
Washington admitted that she was correct, but he preferred a star that would not be an exact copy of that on his coat of arms, and he also thought that a six-pointed star would be easier to cut.
Mrs. Ross liked the five-pointed star, and to show that they were easily cut she deftly folded a piece of paper and with one clip of her scissors unfolded a perfect star with five points.
There is no record that Congress took any action on the national colors at this session, — but this first flag was made by Betsy Ross at this time, and in this way, and we find in Washington’s letter of May 28, 1776, to General Putnam, at New York, positive instructions “to the several colonels to hurry to get their colors done.”
In the orderly book, May 31, 1776, are these words: “General Washington has written to General Putnam desiring him in the most pressing terms, to give positive orders to all the colonels to have colors immediately completed for their respective regiments.”
The proof is positive that the committee approved the finished flag of Betsy Ross, and she was instructed to procure all the bunting possible in Philadelphia and make flags for the use of Congress, Colonel Ross furnishing the money.
The resources of Congress were meager and at best legislative action was then, as now, slow and tedious.
The flag as indicated was wanted, and so Colonel Ross expedited its appearance by paying for the first order himself.
There is little, if any, question that Washington, on December 24th, Christmas Eve, in 1776, carried the starry flag in making that perilous trip through ice and snow across the Delaware…
The American Eagle Silver Dollar Coin shows beside an artist’s interpretation of Washington and Betsy Ross with the first stars and stripes flag, circa 1908.