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Dayhoff: Celebration of Flag Day initiates thoughts of our flag’s origin, the American Revolution

The American flag flies proudly at Carroll Hospital.
The American flag flies proudly at Carroll Hospital. (Kevin Dayhoff for Carroll County Times)

Sunday, June 14 is Flag Day. The flag has remained a constant reminder of the sacrifices that have been made to maintain the freedoms and way of life of this great experiment; we call the United States of America.

Flag Day 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.

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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.

Today is also the day we celebrate the birthday of the United States Army. It was on June 14, 1775 that Congress established the United States Army.

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On June 15, 1775, George Washington was chosen to head the Continental Army. The delegate to the Second Continental Congress who nominated George Washington was Thomas Johnson from Frederick.

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 the Province of Massachusetts Bay had taken place just a few weeks before on April 19, 1775.

On May 13, 2006 the American flag flew proudly over the Flower and Jazz Festival on Main Street at the railroad tracks in Westminster.
On May 13, 2006 the American flag flew proudly over the Flower and Jazz Festival on Main Street at the railroad tracks in Westminster. (Kevin Dayhoff for Carroll County Times)

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

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One of the immediate challenges for General Washington was to negotiate with a congressional committee in September 1775 for more soldiers, equipment, and supplies.

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.”

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…”

Hopefully she got paid. Hopkinson billed the “Board of Admiralty” in 1780 for his work on “‘the flag of the United States of America’ as well as … 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.

On August 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 is 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. Its national debt tripled during the war. At the time, members of congress and a congressional committee were haggling over whether Congressman Hopkinson should be paid, 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 Gen. Cornwallis down at Yorktown. Cornwallis surrendered on Oct. 19, 1781. Only by the Grace of God did our nation survive, in spite of ourselves.

When I was younger I studied the American Revolution from the British point of view. I have written about Flag Day and the Revolutionary War a number of times. Parts of this discussion have previously appeared in print.

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

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