We celebrate the red, white, and blue today, because it’s July 4, Independence Day. If you haven’t noticed, flags are a big deal in the media lately. Unless you’ve hidden your head in a bag, or lived under a rock, you couldn’t help but see story after story about flags.
Our flag’s design goes back a long way: on June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution, which described the American flag as “thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
Later, Congress acted to allow one new star for each state, until we arrived at the ubiquitous 50-star flag so familiar all over the world.
But it wasn’t always so familiar, which led to a rather distinctive misunderstanding.
It started in 1778, when a man named Arthur Lee, American commissioner in France, wrote a letter describing U.S. flagged vessels “colors should be white, red, and blue alternately to thirteen” with a “blue field with thirteen stars.”
Founding fathers Ben Franklin and John Adams, as ambassadors to France, adopted the same description. But their description didn’t match the actual flags used by the United States.
Nobody noticed the error until a fateful day in 1779, when U.S. Navy Captain John Paul Jones captured the British frigate Serapis, but in the process lost his own ship Bonhomme Richard—along with the ensign flying from her mast. All ships at sea must fly some kind of ensign—a flag representing the ship’s country.
Jones sailed to what is now The Netherlands, taking refuge in the neutral island port of Texel, which was under the Dutch United Provinces. With no ensign, Jones could be declared a pirate, as British officials argued.
To avoid any unpleasantries, the Dutch provided an ensign for Serapis, based on the only description they had available: the design described by Lee, Adams, and Franklin. Hence, Serapis left Texel flying a quite unique rendition of the American flag, with stripes in a random pattern of blue, red, white, red, white, blue, red, white, red, blue, white, blue, red, and a field of 13 stars in the upper left canton.
Now known as the “Serapis flag,” the “Franklin flag,” or the “John Paul Jones flag,” depending on who you ask, the flag remains as one of the more popular and colorful items from our nation’s history. In fact, it still flies—well, sort of—the flag is part of the crest of the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer U.S.S. John Paul Jones.
Red, white, and blue are popular colors for flags. The Union Jack, flag of the British Empire from which we won independence, contains the same colors as our flag, along with the French Republic’s tri-color.
Today, 36 countries sport red, white, and blue as the sole colors in their ensign, from Australia to Thailand. Even Russia’s latest flag is a tri-color of white, blue, and red stripes.
One controversial red, white, and blue flag in our country’s history is the stars and bars of the Confederate battle flag. While we still see that flag waving in the breeze here in the south, we’re likely to see a lot less of it, which to some is a welcome change.
And that’s the point of our celebration today. It’s not the colors we celebrate this July 4, nor is it the pattern they follow in fabric hanging from a pole. Today, we celebrate the ideal behind the colors: what makes us American.
Freedom, independence, and unity in diversity are the principles upon which this country is built. Whether you worship God, or you support a scientific explanation for our presence here, or you believe it’s all random chance, as an American, you are equally blessed under the big tent we call the United States—covered by the red, white and blue tapestry that is our home.
These colors don’t run. And that’s definitely worth celebrating.
(Published July 4 in the Houston Home Journal)