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Dayhoff: Flag Day and the history of the U.S. flag

Friday, June 14, is Flag Day in the United States. The holiday was first established by President Woodrow Wilson on May 30, 1916. On Aug. 3, 1949, President Harry Truman signed an Act of Congress that designated June 14 as National Flag Day.

American flags line the walkway to Northwest Middle School during a celebration of Veterans Day in Taneytown Friday, Nov. 11, 2016.
American flags line the walkway to Northwest Middle School during a celebration of Veterans Day in Taneytown Friday, Nov. 11, 2016. (DYLAN SLAGLE/STAFF PHOTO / Carro / Carroll County Times)

According to an article in the Carroll County Times on May 27, “Many Carroll County residents will fly flags this weekend in recognition of Memorial Day. Those who note that their flags are no longer in the best condition might want to consider retiring them.

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“The Carroll County Farm Museum is currently collecting flags that need to be properly retired. They can be dropped at the Farm Museum from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. on the weekends.

“They will be properly retired by Boy Scout Troop 393 at the Flag Day Ceremony scheduled for 6 p.m. June 14 at the museum, 500 S. Center St, Westminster. The event is free and open to the public and will be held rain or shine…”

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Cub Scouts, from left, Rain Olson, 8, Michael Buckingham, 7, Xavier Mastbrooks, 7, and Owen Davis, 8, carry worn flags that will be retired in a Flag Day ceremony at the Carroll County Farm Museum in Westminster Wednesday, June 14, 2017.
Cub Scouts, from left, Rain Olson, 8, Michael Buckingham, 7, Xavier Mastbrooks, 7, and Owen Davis, 8, carry worn flags that will be retired in a Flag Day ceremony at the Carroll County Farm Museum in Westminster Wednesday, June 14, 2017. (DYLAN SLAGLE/STAFF PHOTO / Carro / Carroll County Times)

The history of the United States flag is fascinating. The history is steeped in intrigue, twists and turns, and surprises. I have written about the history of the flag before. Most notably in an article for the Baltimore Sun in 2008. Much of this discussion has been published before.

The origins of Flag Day go back to the Second Continental Congress, which met from May 10, 1775, to March 1, 1781. It passed the “Flag Act of 1777” on June 14, 1777.

Originally, the purpose of the Second Continental Congress was to hopefully continue negotiations with Great Britain over the “Intolerable Acts.” The First Continental Congress drafted the “Articles of Association,” in 1774, in a furtive attempt to mitigate England’s policies towards the colonies. Severing the relationship with England was not part of the plan at the time.

Nevertheless, by the time the Second Continental Congress had convened in Philadelphia, on May 10, 1775, the American Revolution had begun. The Battles of Lexington and Concord, in Middlesex County, Province of Massachusetts Bay had taken place just a few weeks before on April 19, 1775.

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Quickly, things were not looking good for the home team. Instead of conducting economic negotiations with the most powerful nation on the planet at the time, the Second Continental Congress found itself at war with a non-existent army, no money, and the support of about one-third of the population, on a good day.

One of the immediate challenges for General Washington was to negotiate with a congressional committee in September 1775 for more soldiers, equipment, and supplies. Factionalism plagued congress and regionalism challenged the military and the agreement reached with congress was ultimately not satisfactory.

According to Volume I of the U. S. Army’s “American Military History,” edited by Richard W. Stewart: “A Continental Army had been formed, but it fell far short of the goals Washington and Congress had set for it. This army was enlisted for but a year, and the whole troublesome process would have to be repeated at the end of 1776. The short term of enlistment was, of course, a cardinal error; but in 1775 everyone, including Washington, had anticipated only a short campaign.”

Flags are displayed on East Main Street at the railroad tracks in historic downtown Westminster. June 14 is Flag Day in the United States. Kevin Dayhoff photo
Flags are displayed on East Main Street at the railroad tracks in historic downtown Westminster. June 14 is Flag Day in the United States. Kevin Dayhoff photo (Kevin Dayhoff)

A representative from New Jersey, Francis Hopkinson, is accepted by history to have been the designer of the first flag. He was a poet and an artist who began serving on the “Continental Navy Board” in November 1776. It was in this capacity that Congressman Hopkinson began work on “admiralty colors.”

Tradition has it that a Philadelphia flagmaker by the name of Betsy Ross was also involved in the design and manufacture of one of the first flags. The May 29, 1777, minutes of the “Board of War” meeting reads: “... an Order on William Webb to Elizabeth Ross, for fourteen pounds, twelve shillings, two pence for making ships colours & put into William Richards’ stores.”

Hopefully she got paid. Congressman Hopkinson billed the “Board of Admiralty” in 1780 for his work on “’the flag of the United States of America’ as well as several ornaments, devices, and checks appearing on bills of exchange, ship papers, the seals of the boards of Admiralty and Treasury, and the Great Seal of the United States. Hopkinson had received nothing for this work, and now he submitted a bill and asked “whether a Quarter Cask of the public wine” would not be a reasonable and proper reward for his labors.”

A congressional committee was appointed to investigate Congressman Hopkinson’s request for payment. It summoned witnesses and took testimony. However, “the men of the Board of Treasury ignored the summons. In its report to Congress, the committee recommended that the present board be dismissed.”

The more you read about the behavior of congress in the early days of the republic, the more one wonders if we were at war with congress – or Britain.

The flag flies in the gray cold rainy weather at the National Memorial Arch in Valley Forge National Historical Park. According to the National Park Service, “The United States Memorial Arch, located at the intersection of Outerline Drive and Gulph Road, was erected to commemorate the arrival of General George Washington and his Continental Army into Valley Forge.” Construction began on the arch in 1914 and it was dedicated on June 19, 1917. Photo by Kevin Dayhoff
The flag flies in the gray cold rainy weather at the National Memorial Arch in Valley Forge National Historical Park. According to the National Park Service, “The United States Memorial Arch, located at the intersection of Outerline Drive and Gulph Road, was erected to commemorate the arrival of General George Washington and his Continental Army into Valley Forge.” Construction began on the arch in 1914 and it was dedicated on June 19, 1917. Photo by Kevin Dayhoff (Kevin Dayhoff)

On Aug. 23, 1781, congress passed a resolution that the congressman, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, be paid. Ultimately, he was never paid, not because it was disputed that he did the work, but because his political adversaries prevailed in denying him payment.

Bear in mind, that there was war going on. A war that never really went well. Objective history is ambivalent as to whether the American colonies won the war or Great Britain got tired of the hassle and expenses and walked away. At the time, members of congress and a congressional committee were haggling over whether Congressman Hopkinson should be paid or not, the final military maneuvers of the war were being conducted in Virginia.

It was around Aug. 23, 1781, that French Admiral de Grasse arrived from the Caribbean, blockaded the Chesapeake Bay, and pinned British General Cornwallis down at Yorktown. General Cornwallis surrendered on Oct. 19, 1781.

Only by the Grace of God did our nation survive, in spite of ourselves.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. His Time Flies column appears every Sunday. Email him at kevindayhoff@gmail.com.

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