Happy Flag Day! Did you know that today’s holiday would not exist but for the actions of a 19-year old schoolteacher from Wisconsin?
In other words, anyone, anywhere can make a difference.
In 1885, Bernard J. Cigrand was teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in Waubeka, Wisconsin. He’d devised a simple class exercise for his students: They were to write essays about the flag in commemoration of the flag’s birthday on June 14.
Perhaps some of these essays mentioned the reason that June 14 is considered to be the flag’s birthday? It was on this day in 1777 that the Continental Congress first adopted a national flag for the newly declared American nation. Congress has made some changes since then, but the basic design of the flag remains the same: “thirteen stripes, alternate red and white” with a union of “thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
Surely Cigrand could not have imagined where this simple class exercise would take him! He would end up spending literally the rest of his life fighting for a national flag holiday.
One year later, in 1886, he wrote an article for a Chicago paper, urging that the flag’s birthday be observed annually. He would eventually author hundreds of articles advocating for the June 14 holiday, and he delivered many speeches. By 1894, he had achieved a public school celebration of Flag Day in Chicago. More than 300,000 children attended! Many more private and state-level celebrations ensued over the next two decades.
On May 30, 1916, with World War I looming on the horizon, President Woodrow Wilson formalized something that people were doing on their own anyway. He issued a presidential proclamation declaring that June 14, 1916, would be the first annual national Flag Day celebration.
“Let us on that day rededicate ourselves,” he wrote, “to the nation, ‘one and inseparable’ from which every thought that is not worthy of our fathers’ first vows in independence, liberty, and right shall be excluded . . . .”
Cigrand unfortunately did not live long enough to see the end of the tale, because he died unexpectedly in 1932. Seventeen years later, President Harry Truman finally signed a congressional act that officially designated June 14 as Flag Day.
Today’s holiday is not only a celebration of our flag, but it is also a wonderful demonstration of what one determined individual can accomplish, isn’t it?
Journals of the Continental Congress (June 14, 1777)
Marc Leepson, Flag: An American Biography (2005)
Woodrow Wilson, Proclamation 1335—Flag Day (May 30, 1916)