Those 13 stripes and 50 stars make up one of the world’s most familiar symbols. But what else might the US flag have looked like? For 4 July, Jonathan Glancey looks back.

On 18 August 1969, Jimi Hendrix concluded the Woodstock Festival with a medley of Voodoo Child (Slight Return) and Purple Haze interspersed with an iconoclastic interpretation of The Star-Spangled Banner. To some, this Stratocaster assault was an excoriating critique of the Vietnam War. For others, it was an insult to the national anthem and the US flag.

A year earlier, at the Royal Albert Hall in London, Keith Emerson, keyboard player of the English prog-rock band The Nice, set fire to the Stars and Stripes at the end of a savage rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s America. The Nice were banned from the Albert Hall, although they were made very welcome in New York where, in December 1969, they recorded a spirited live album at the Fillmore East – one of Hendrix’s favourite venues –  showcasing America.

To many Americans the Star-Spangled Banner – also known as Old Glory and the Stars and Stripes – is near enough a religious icon. In reaction to a post-election flag burning protest in November 2016 on the campus of Hampshire College, Massachusetts, President-elect Trump tweeted, “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag - if they do, there must be consequences - perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”

In 2005, Senator Hillary Clinton co-sponsored the Flag Protection Act, calling for fines of up to $250,000 (around £140,000 at the time) and two years in prison for such unpatriotic desecration. Neither Clinton nor Trump appeared aware of two earlier Supreme Court rulings upholding the First Amendment of the US Constitution guaranteeing freedom of political expression and allowing – whether fellow Americans find this unpatriotic and criminal – the burning of the Stars and Stripes.

In the early stages of the Revolutionary War against the British, regiments of George Washington’s Continental Army had raised a variety of flags including the British Union Flag. The Stars and Stripes emerged triumphant from a complex and historically uncertain American flag-scape, yet might one of the alternatives below have triumphed over Old Glory? Might Jimi Hendrix have played Don’t Tread on Me? Could Keith Emerson have torched the Betsy Ross?

1. Grand Union Flag, 1775

Complete separation from the Crown and the United Kingdom was not necessarily a fait accompli as Americans took up arms in 1775. When, on 1 January 1776, Washington’s Continental Army was mustered formally on Prospect Hill (Mount Pisgah) in Somerville, Massachusetts, it was under this flag favoured by the American general during the previous year’s Siege of Boston. John Paul Jones, the first well-known American admiral raised the Grand Union Flag at sea in December 1775. He went on to serve the Imperial Russian Navy, a commission unthinkable under the auspices of the Stars and Stripes today. The Grand Union Flag was an adaptation of the British Red Ensign, with six white stripes overlain on the red backdrop to create thirteen alternating red-and-white stripes symbolising the first states of the American union.

2.  Liberty Tree flag, 1775

The lofty white pines of New England were much prized by the Royal Navy for the construction of its grandest warships. Dating from the Massachusetts Charter of 1691, prize specimens were marked with a broad arrow symbol denoting property of the Crown and shipped to England. This form of compulsory purchase led to the Pine Tree Riot of 1772, a precursor to the famous Boston Tea Party of 1774 and war with Great Britain a year later.

Flown from the masts of American warships, the Pine Tree flag was a powerful symbolic riposte to the Crown and its Royal Navy. A lone pine was shown on a white background with the inscription “An Appeal to Heaven” (“An Appeal to God” was a less common alternative). These words were taken from the British philosopher John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government (1690), which refuted the notion of the Divine Right of Kings.

3. The Betsy Ross, 1776 (or not)

The earliest known example of this flag, with its neat and modern-looking circle of 13 five-pointed stars, appears to date from 1792 in a painting begun that year, George Washington before the Battle of Trenton, by John Trumbull. The battle took place in 1776 and so, perhaps, the Betsy Ross was the first all-American flag. No one knows for sure and this early Continental flag, still flown today on many occasions, remains the stuff of legend. It is said to have been designed and made by Betsy Ross, a Philadelphia seamstress and upholsterer well known to George Washington. The story was told years later by Ross’s grandson William Canby. Today, most US historians agree that whatever Betsy’s role and the uncertain date of this particular flag, the beautiful young widowed upholsterer from Philadelphia was a warm and welcome symbol of the contribution American women made to the Revolution. 

4.  Don’t Tread on Me or The Gadsden Flag, 1776

Approved by Congress and depicting a coiled rattle snake ready to strike on a yellow background above the legend “Don’t Tread on Me”, this unusual flag was probably first flown by Commodore Esek Hopkins in February 1776 on a naval raid against the British outpost of Nassau in the Bahamas. On land, it was popularised by Brigadier General Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina, who may well have designed it. Along with the Bald Eagle, the rattlesnake was a symbol of the American colonies: its rattle has thirteen layers, one for each of the original United States. Writing for the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1751, Benjamin Franklin suggested that in retaliation against Britain sending convicted criminals to America, America would return the favour with rattlesnakes. Eclipsed by the Stars and Stripes, the Gadsden Flag has regained popularity recently with libertarian groups – notably the Tea Party – alongside US soccer supporter groups.

5. US Navy Flag, 1777

On 14 June 1777, the Second Continental Congress resolved “that the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” Although a flag bearing a strong resemblance to today’s Star-Spangled Banner was designed by Francis Hopkinson, a New Jersey lawyer and signatory of the Declaration of Independence, this was primarily for the US Navy and even by May 1779, a letter from the War Board to George Washington said there was no established design for the Continental Army’s use in battle, let alone for the United States of America. Myth and romance came in to play when – so the story goes – in August 1777, reinforcements sent to save besieged Fort Schuyler, New York, cut up white shirts, the red petticoats of officers’ wives and the blue cloth coat of Captain Abraham Swartwout to make an early Stars and Stripes. 

6. Serapis flag, 1779

In those early days when the US flag had yet to be established, many featured red, white and blue stripes. The most famous of these is the Serapis flag of 1779 flown from the captured British frigate of that name by US Captain John Paul Jones. In battle, the ensign of the British ship had been blown away. When Jones sailed her, flagless and in need of repair, into the island port of Texel, run by the neutral Dutch United Provinces, British officials declared the Serapis a pirate ship.  This was a dangerous moment for Jones.

Based, perhaps, on knowledge of a letter from Benjamin Franklin and John Adams of 3 October 1778 to Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies describing the American flag as consisting of “13 stripes, alternately red, white and blue”, Jones had such a design run up. The original sketch survives in Dutch records. 

7. The Star-Spangled Banner, 1795

 

This enormous flag, measuring 42ft by 30ft (13m by 9m), flew over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in 1812. The Americans were victorious, while the sight of the Stars and Stripes waving over the besieged fort prompted Francis Scott Key, lawyer and poet, to write The Defence of Fort McHenry. Its famous verses became The Star-Spangled Banner, from 1931 the National Anthem of the United States:

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Curiously, perhaps, this most famous of US flags – on display in the Museum of American History, Washington DC today – boasts 15 rather than 13 stripes, while the anthem it encouraged is sung to a British melody composed by John Stafford Smith, organist of the Chapel Royal, London. Smith had written his music to accompany To Anacreon in Heaven,a London club’s drinking song.

8.  Confederate Navy Flag, 1863

By 1861, the US flag was very much what is today. Something, though, was about to threaten the very identity of the United States. This, of course, was the American Civil War (1861-65). Where the Union states flew the Stars and Stripes, the Confederate states raised a number of distinctive flags adorned with 13 stars of their own set in circles or, more recognisably today, within a blue saltire cross on a red background. The Confederacy produced a wide range of flags, although the best known is based either on the Second Confederate Navy Jack or the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia. The Southern Cross is a reminder of how the course of US history might have been very different. And, although they cannot ignore the rulings of the US Supreme Court, laws in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina protect the Confederate flag from mutilation, defamation and contempt.     

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