The Glory of Old Glory

Few symbols showcase “America” like Old Glory on a breezy day. Freedom and liberty are the message, loud and clear.

We learned as schoolchildren that Betsy Ross of Philadelphia created the Stars and Stripes, our national flag, from a drawing given her by George Washington. That’s likely legend, not fact. No proof exists, as Betsy’s papers were burned after her death. The family story has likely been enlarged, as family stories sometimes are.

Betsy was real, however, and she made flags—hundreds of them. She was born January 1, 1752, the day the colonies switched to the Gregorian calendar, which made January 1st the beginning of the year. She was the sixth of eighteen children, several of whom died in infancy, including three of her four brothers. Twice widowed, she and her third husband, John Claypoole, raised 7 daughters and several nieces, and ran a small upholstery shop on the ground floor of their three-story rented home. Betsy sewed the fabrics of colonial life: mattresses, window and bed curtains, slipcovers and cushions—and flags. Independence rose around her. Family members, some rooted deep in the Quaker faith’s neutrality, stood on all sides of the freedom divide. She knew those who gave birth to liberty and her artisan skills helped create colonial culture.

The pattern for our flag evolved over time. The design was set by law in 1777, but variations persisted for decades. The final design’s blue field represents our national character. It took longer to decide on the stripes. At first they varied: horizontal, vertical, wide, narrow, even green. They became thirteen red and white horizontal stripes, one for each of the original colonies. The white star, with its 5 points—the likely contribution of Betsy Ross to the design—represents each state in the Union, a total of fifty today.

Flags were big in colonial life and colonial war. They declared authority. On the open seas, they announced nationality to friend and foe. They conveyed messages between ships, and the average ship carried 2 dozen different flags, each handmade by its creator. Flags led troops into battle; ground troops, mounted troops and individual regiments all had their own flags, for a total of 500 different revolution era designs according to flag scholar Edward W. Richardson. Each became a rallying point in the chaos of battle.

The nickname Old Glory came later, from William Driver’s 1824 homemade flag, with its 24 stars sewn by his mother and female admirers. At age 21, he was to command the ship Charles Doggett. “It has ever been my staunch companion and protection,” he later said. “Savages and heathens, lowly and oppressed, hailed and welcomed it at the far end of the wide world. Then, why should it not be called Old Glory?”

America’s flag has steadied many battlefields. Those who lived rejoiced that it still stood; some who died took their last look at its colors. Through America’s declared and undeclared wars, it has meant “home” to soldiers starved for home. Visit Europe and you will see vast fields of graves—five in France, alone—that hold the remains of the youth we gave to defend our friends. On each headstone flies a tiny American flag. These warriors never came home. Who can forget the sight of 2996 flags, one for each victim of 9/11, standing in orderly rows in Forest Park in St Louis on the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center bombing? So many have lived and died for our nation and our flag! It is our privilege to honor them both.

As a nation, it is our responsibility to take our flag only to places where it will emerge with honor and respect. It is the duty of our leaders to take it into war only where virtue, morality, and our sovereignty commend the fight.

Respect shown to the Stars and Stripes, and to the Constitution it heralds, is the mark of honorable people. School children in past were told: “Wave the flag and stomp your feet!” That is good advice. May we wave it for its greatness, and stomp our feet in support of its defense. Old Glory is glorious, indeed!