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January 1 and the Stars & Stripes

Not only does January 1, 2019 start a new year, it also marks the day in 1776 when Gen. George Washington flew the first colonial flag on Prospect Hill outside Boston, Massachusetts.

Marked by a 13-cannon salute, that ceremony signaled the beginning of this country’s flag and national existence.

That first flag – which has a passing resemblance to today’s Stars and Stripes – had many names: The Grand Union Flag, The Congress Colors, The Continental Colors, The Cambridge Flag, and The First Navy Ensign.

The history of today’s flag begins inside Margaret Manny’s millinery shop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Known for the sewing of jacks and ensigns for ships since early 1774, she was asked by James Wharton in the autumn of 1775 to create a flag for the Alfred, a 30-gun warship anchored in Philadelphia’s Delaware River.

In stitching that first flag, Manny skillfully combined the conflicted feelings felt by many Americans toward England.

She created the alternating 13 red and white stripes to represent the 13 colonies in their growing struggle for economic and political independence from England.

On the other hand, and in the upper left-hand corner of the flag, she sewed the red cross of England’s St. George and the white cross of Scotland’s St. Andrew on a blue field to demonstrate respect to England.

Pleased with the banner – comprised of both American and English loyalties – Wharton presented the flag to the Alfred’s captain, Esek Hopkins.

On a cold morning in early December 1775, Lt. John Paul Jones raised that new flag on the Alfred for the first time.


So why does Washington receive the credit for having flown this first flag?

Unlike Jones’ quiet raising of the banner in Philadelphia, Washington’s raising of it represented a loud rebuke to the English.

Just prior to New Year’s Day 1776, supporters of England (Loyalists) had circulated throughout Boston a copy of a recent speech by King George III.  In it he offered Washington’s army favorable terms if it surrendered.

Washington refused, and to signal his unwillingness to comply with the king’s wishes he ordered the raising of the new flag on January 1, 1776.

When the Loyalist saw the flag, they assumed Washington’s army would surrender.

Nothing could have been further from Washington’s thinking, and the struggle for American independence continued.

To make sure there would be no further confusion as to the colonies desire for independence, Washington determined to have a new flag created.

In May of 1776, Washington and two other men met with and asked Betsy Ross, a widow and the owner of an upholstery business, to sew a flag representative of the American cause.

Ross’ uncompromising work incorporated the 13 red and white stripes of the first flag but removed all suggestion of England through the addition of 13 stars.

Six months after Washington’s defiant raising of the first flag on Prospect Hill, the first variation of 2019’s Stars and Stripes appeared.


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