On this day in 1818, President James Monroe signs an act that redesigns the U.S. flag. That act established our current rule: The flag always has 13 stripes. The number of stars matches the number of states. If an update is needed, we do it on the first July 4 after a state is admitted into the Union.
The Stars and Stripes has a long history! Did you know that, at one point, our flag even had 15 stripes?
During the American Revolution, a wide variety of flags were used. Sometimes soldiers brought flags affiliated with their state or region and used that flag. George Washington had his own Commander-in-Chief flag that traveled with him. The Grand Union Flag was flown. Perhaps unsurprisingly, variations of a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag were sometimes used as well.
Almost a year after we declared independence, the Continental Congress passed a resolution that “the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.” But this resolution was actually fairly vague. It specified the colors for the stripes and stars, but otherwise left flag makers without any direction. For instance, no provisions were made for the proportions of the flag, the direction of the stripes, or the arrangement of the stars. Thus, a wide variety of flags cropped up during the Revolutionary War years.
One of these flags is depicted in the attached picture. It features twelve stars in a square, along with a star in the middle of the square. That particular arrangement of stars appeared in several of John Trumbull’s works, including the attached excerpt from the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis. There were other patterns, too.
Following the war, a 1794 act increased the number of stars and stripes to 15, representing the fact that Kentucky and Vermont had joined the Union. Well, it wasn’t long before people realized that it would be difficult to add stripes for every new state! Thus, the 1818 act reduced the stripes back down to 13.
While the 1818 act established current rules regarding the number and color of the stars and stripes, Congress still did not set uniform dimensions for the flag. It would be nearly 100 years before that issue was resolved, and President William Taft can take credit for it. He issued an executive order on June 24, 1912, which established more uniformity in the appearance of the flag. That executive order has been updated twice since Taft’s term.
Facts about the United States Flag (Smithsonian website)
Journals of the Continental Congress (June 14, 1777)
Marc Leepson, Flag: An American Biography (2005)
RareFlags.com (depicting a variety of 13-star patterns)