The first American flag — dubbed the “Grand Union” flag many decades later — was adopted in late 1775 not long after the start of the Revolutionary War.
While it had the traditional 13 red and white horizontal stripes, the Grand Union flag didn’t have a field of stars in the far lefthand corner — it was actually the Union Jack that has long represented Great Britain.
There’s some debate in history as to why a group of colonies seeking independence would create a flag that includes the symbol of the very country they’re trying to separate from. Some believe that early revolutionary leaders like George Washington pushed for independence from the British Parliament, but wasn’t necessarily seeking separation from King George III.
That flag only lasted about 18 months until the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution creating what many might refer to as the Betsy Ross flag — with 13 stars representing the 13 colonies in a perfect circle.
Since then, the flag has changed roughly 25 times, typically to accommodate the inclusion of new states. Our current flag code allows stars to be added on the first July 4 after that state is officially admitted into the union.
While military branches and others of the patriotic persuasion developed rules over the years in how the American flag was to be treated, no centralized rules were established until 1923 when a collection of organizations led by the American Legion put together standard rules for the first time.
Many of those rules would eventually become federal law at the height of World War II in the early 1940s. Although officially part of our country’s legal system, these rules don’t carry enforceable penalties, and so whether someone actually follows these rules is entirely up to them.
That might be why so many of these rules are violated over and over — many times without any awareness that such rules are being broken.
Many of us know some of these rules, like don’t let the flag touch the ground, and don’t fly anything above it. We also may know that there’s a certain way to store the flag and a specific ceremony to disposing an old flag, although we might not know the details.
But there are other rules that might be worth reviewing, especially as we prepare to honor our nation’s heroes who have fought to protect the very freedoms the American flag represents.
Some might be surprising — like the flag should never be used as clothing, bedding or drapery. That the flag should never be used as a covering for the ceiling. That it should never be used as packaging, or as wrapping.
The rules also specifically prohibit using the flag on cushions or handkerchiefs, or be printed on paper napkins or boxes.
But one aspect of the rules that seem to have been ignored in more recent years is one where nothing should be placed on or made part of the American flag. This includes any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture or drawing of any nature.
Yet, many well-meaning groups have used variations of the American flag to advocate or to make a statement of some kind. The idea is likely to show these groups are patriotic, or that their ideals are ingrained in our national ethos.
But the American flag should only represent one thing and one thing only: the United States of America. It’s an exclusive arrangement that too many died to defend, and it must be protected.
President Woodrow Wilson once said that the American flag is an “emblem of our unity, our power, our thought and purpose as a nation. It has no other character than that which we give it from generation to generation.”
No matter how well-meaning, let’s not change that character through this practice of co-opting the American flag for anything other than its primary job: To represent the United States of America.