On July 4th, the nation will join in concert to celebrate 237 years in the life of America. But more than fireworks, cookouts, baseball games or singing the national anthem, for many it’s the sight of the American flag that captures the spirit of Independence Day and the gratitude of a free people. Seven red stripes, six white stripes and fifty stars on a field of blue. This simple design, flying lithe in the wind, carries the weight of two centuries of history marred by pain and marked by progress.
The flag first emerged in 1776 when rebel colonists raised the banner as a symbol of freedom from the tyranny of King George and Great Britain. In the summer of 1777, the Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act, adopting the design as the new nation’s first official flag, stating that its stars would represent “a new constellation.” Over the years, more stars were added with each successive state. (The United States accepted Vermont as the fourteenth state in 1790. Hawaii, the 50th state, added its star to the American flag in 1960.) In less than two hundred years, the American flag was altered 27 times.
But the largest challenge for the flag wasn’t the addition of stars – but their potential loss during the Civil War. When the conflict ended and restoration began, flag sales skyrocketed. According to Annin and Co., the nation’s largest and oldest flag manufacturer, 1865 was the first time in America’s history that private citizens purchased flags to display on their homes.
Today Annin Flagmakers operates four U.S. factories, including its largest plant in Virginia – crafting flags with the tides of history. A deluge of orders flooded Annin when the addition of Hawaii sent Americans clamoring for the new fifty-star flag. And in the wake of September 11, Americans displayed the symbol of our freedom in the face of unfathomable evil. Annin reported that orders in 2001 were twenty times higher than normal.
But perhaps its most important display isn’t on a flagpole or in a museum. For veterans, and for their next-of-kin, the Stars and Stripes isn’t just a hollow symbol of freedom or nationalism. Pulled taut from a casket and folded thirteen times into a tightly bound triangle, the flag is a symbol of service, sacrifice and a nation’s gratitude. So when fireworks explode and the anthems ring next week, let the flag fly in memory of all America has endured, with vigor for all we have yet to overcome.