By Sen. Bill Doyle
In 1861, the first Flag Day was celebrated in Hartford, Connecticut, and in 1889, the state of New York passed a law calling for Flag Day in schools. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation asking that June 14 be observed as Flag Day. The statute stipulated: “It shall be the duty of the state superintendent of public schools to prepare a program making special provision for the observance of Flag Day.”
A strong case can be made that the first Stars and Stripes flag to wave in victory was the Bennington Battle flag. This flag was raised during the Battle of Bennington in August of 1777 when the militia of three states – Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts – attacked General Burgoyne’s Hessian troops to prevent the capture of ammunition located at Bennington. This was a very important victory because it led, in part, to the British defeat at Saratoga shortly afterwards, which proved to be the turning point of the Revolutionary War.
On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress authorized the first United States flag to include 13 stars of white in a blue field, and 13 stripes of alternating red and white. These specifications were met by the Bennington Battle flag except for the numerals ‘76.
“The colors of the flag may be thus explained. The red is for valor, zeal and fervency: the white for hope, purity, cleanliness of life and rectitude of conduct; the blue, the color of heaven, for reverence to God, loyalty, sincerity, justice and truth.”
During some of the early battles of the Revolutionary War, different states had different flags. The Massachusetts flag depicted a pine tree emblem, while Pennsylvania and Virginia flags bore a coiled rattlesnake with the warning, “Don’t Tread on Me.” Other colonies had the words “Liberty or Death.” In 1794, two stars were added to the American flag recognizing the admission of Vermont and Kentucky to the Union. In 1818, Congress passed a law keeping the stripes at 13, but mandating a star for every new state.
Flag Day was established when President Harry Truman signed the National Flag Day bill in August of 1949. Since that time, the President has issued a proclamation urging that the Stars and Stripes be displayed and ceremonies performed in honor of the flag.
The most colorful and international celebration of Flag Day takes place every year at Niagara, NY. Representatives of the United States and Canada and France give historic presentations of their flags, often to crowds of 10,000 or more. The band plays the “Marseillaise” for the French colors, for the British Union Jack, “God Save the Queen,” and for the American flag, the “Star Spangled Banner.”
The origin of the flag’s colors has been attributed to George Washington when he addressed a Continental Congress in 1777. “We take the stars from Heaven, the red from our mother country, separating it by wide stripes, thus showing that we have separated from her and the white stripes will go down in posterity, representing her liberty.”
President Washington must have been pleased that the national flag resembled that of Vermont. He had been grateful to Vermont for winning the first victory of the Revolutionary War at Fort Ticonderoga. The heavy cannons captured from the fort were floated across Lake Champlain and sledded in mid-winter to Washington’s troops in Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston Harbor.
In 1977, Flag Day observances were held throughout the nation and focused on the 200th anniversary of the 1777 flag. Those who participated in the ceremonies around the country were the armed forces, veterans’ organizations, schools and civic groups.
When we celebrate Flag Day on June 14, we should remember the role of Vermont in the history of our flag. We should also remember that the American flag symbolizes the ideals of liberty, equality and tolerance, and embodies the spirit of our national commitment to those ideals.
Senator Bill Doyle serves on the Senate Education Committee and Senate Economic Affairs Committee. He teaches government history at Johnson State College. He can be reached at 186 Murray Road, Montpelier, VT 05602; e-mail email@example.com; or call 223-2851.