Flag of Washington, D.C.
|Adopted||October 15, 1938|
|Design||Argent two bars Gules, in chief three mullets of the second.|
|Designed by||Charles A. R. Dunn |
Commissioner Melvin C. Hazen
Arthur E. Du Bois
The flag of Washington, D.C. consists of three red stars above two red bars on a white background. It is an armorial banner based on the design of the coat of arms granted to George Washington's great-great-great-grandfather, Lawrence Washington of Sulgrave Manor, Northamptonshire, England in 1592. This coat of arms was used privately by the President in his home at Mount Vernon. In heraldry, the stars are called mullets and the coat of arms is blazoned as argent two bars gules, in chief three mullets of the second.
In 1938, the flag was selected by a Commission created by Act of Congress with the help of the Commission of Fine Arts. The District Flag Commission was composed of three non-elected federally-appointed members: the President of the Board of Commissioners, the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy. The flag was seen at the time as a symbol of the lack of Representation of Washingtonians as no local group was involved in the selection process. Paradoxically, it went from being rejected by many in the local population to being embraced by most DC residents, the DC Statehood Movement and businesses as a symbol of the local identity in the 21st Century. Today, it can be seen all around the city on DC Government property, flying in front of homes, in logos of local businesses and on some local residents' bodies as tattoos. It is also flown proudly on Flag Day.
- 1 History
- 2 Designer
- 3 Usage
- 4 Criticism of the design
- 5 Praise for the design
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Washington family coat of arms
The Washington family traces its roots to England in the 13th Century to Wessyngton, a small rural estate in the northeastern part of the country where Sir William de Hertburn receives a lordship. The original coat of arms evolves drastically over the next 150 years through alliances, land acquisitions and conflicts. In 1346, the first appearance of the family coat of arms as we would recognize it is recorded for Sir William de Wessyngton’s great-grandson. The two horizontal bars below three mullets are, however Argent (silver) on Gules (red). By the end of the 14th Century, the current design is recorded for the family. After various events, the family is dispersed around England in Buckinghamshire, Kent, Warwickshire and Northamptonshire. In 1592, Robert Cooke, Clarenceux King of Arms confirms the coat of arms upon Lawrence Washington (1566/68-1616) of Sulgrave Manor in Northamptonshire during the reign of Elizabeth I.
Two grandsons of Lawrence Washington settled in the Americas in the 1660s. One of them was Colonel John Washington who settles in the Colony of Virginia in 1656 where he becomes a planter. His great-grandson was George Washington who would become the first President of the United States. He used the coat of arms extensively on his Mount Vernon property including on personal objects and on the livery uniforms of his servants. This was a common practice among wealthy British plantation owners.
After the United-States was recognized as independent from Britain in 1783, George Washington started a communication by mail with Sir Isaac Heard, Garter Principal King of Arms of the College of Arms in London on the matter of the coat of arms. This correspondence took place between 1791 and 1796 and appears to have been genealogical and probably also heraldic in nature. The President and the Garter appear to have been working together to trace George Washington's ancestors and the link to the British Isles. Mr. Heard confirmed the events that took place in England regarding his ancestors in a letter dated December 7, 1791. George Washington acknowledged that this was the same coat of arms used in the Colony prior to Independence.
Since its creation by Congress on July 9, 1790, by the Residence Act and for over a century, the District of Columbia was without an official flag and flew several unofficial banners, usually the flag of the D.C. National Guard.
In the early 20th Century, the Thompsen-Bryan-Ellis Company was a firm of printers working on a flag book under the direction of Lieutenant Commander Byron McCandless who had a great interest in vexillology. The work was then taken over by the National Geographic. It became the now well known "Our Flag Number" (Volume XXXII - Number 4) which contained 1197 Flags in full colors and an additional 300 in black and white. On page 335, the National Guard's flag is shown as the representation of the District of Columbia. It showed a blue flag with two banners on it: one above with the word "Headquarters" and one below with "District of Columbia Militia" written on it. In between was an axe.
One of the artists working on the project was Charles A. R. Dunn. While drawing some of the flags, he noticed the lack of good design for many of the State Flags with many simply being the State Seal on a blue field. He also realized that the District of Columbia did not have a flag. He started thinking about designing a flag for the Capital. He was very attracted to the design of the neighboring State Flag of Maryland which used the arms of Lord Baltimore. It was only natural that he would remain in the field of heraldry for the inspiration of his design.
In 1921, he had moved on to work for the Chamber of Commerce of the United States. While working in the Mills Building, Dunn drew a design for the flag in the office studio. He took the design directly from the coat of arms which belonged to the Washington family with no change to the design but did not release it at the time.
On February 8, 1924, the Daughters of the American Revolution managed to get a bill introduced in Congress to set up a commission to select a design. It was introduced by Chairman Reed of the House District Committee. The Commission would be composed of the President of the United States, the Secretary of War and the president of the board of Commissioners of the District. It would have an appropriation of $1,500. On February 20, 1924, the Evening Star published a proposed design by John Mackaye Dunbar. It featured the shield portion of the coat-of-arms on a red field with a blue cross. While this design was not endorsed by the D.A.R., they appreciated its display of "simplicity" in their February 24 meeting. They confirmed that their research that the Militia flag with an ax had been used as a flag but was not an appropriate flag for the District. They further rejected the idea of having the seal of the District of Columbia be part of the design for a flag due to its complexity. Charles Moore, the chairman of the Fine Arts Commission who had been consulted on the drafting of the bill, also agreed that the design should be simple and should emphasize in some way that the District is the seat of the central government of all the states.
In February of that year, Charles Dunn submitted a set of drawings in black and white and in color to the Evening Star which was published on March 16, 1924. While the charges remained the same (two bars and three mullets) the tinctures had changed from all gules (red) to cobalt blue for the stars and vermilion for the bars. However, the enthusiasm died down soon after and the issue of a District of Columbia flag was not raised again until 1937.
However, some opposition arose from the Southeast Citizens' Association. On March 26, 1924, they adopted a resolution opposing the adoption of a special flag for the District of Columbia. This resolution was apparently adopted after Capt. W.E. Luckett declared "that the only flag the District of Columbia should cherish as its own is the one flag for every American — the Stars and Stripes".
On May 12, 1924, at a gathering of the Federation of Citizen's Associations, an imitation meeting of the federation was staged for the purpose of entertaining the guests present at the event. Meetings were known for their fiery debates and the topic of choice in this piece was the adoption of a flag for the District of Columbia. The "special committee" was headed by Fred S. Walker and James W. Murphy who came forward with the emblem with Jesse C. Suter as a member:
a goat on a field of yellow. In one corner was a pair of manacles for a coat-of-arms denoting the condition of the people of the District. In another corner was drawn a double cross.
The design which would become known as the Jest Flag and was made public again on June 14, 2019 as part of #DCFlagDay as part of a discussion on the history of the DC Flag. It is currently in the holdings of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. and was last displayed in 1960 according to Josh Gibson who found the flag.
On May 2, 1924, the Evening Star published a new designed proposed by the Army. It was designed by the Office of the Quartermaster General and was the joint work of Capt. J. Moultrie Ward, Q.M.C. and Flora F. Sherwood, the Quartermaster Corps civilian artist. While they used the arms of George Washington in part of the flag and its two colors, it was very different. The first third, next to the host consisted of a broad red strip with three white five-pointed stars aligned vertically in its center. They represented the three cities originally in its boundaries: Washington City, Georgetown and Alexandria. The remainder of the flag was composed of four stripes aligned veritably and alternating white and red ending with red on its edge.
The Senate passed the bill on May 5, 1924 and it made its way to the House of Representatives. On May 7, 1924 the Native Washingtonians for a Banquet for the organizations fifth anniversary. During his presentation, the president of the society Jesse C. Suter showed the audience the version of the District flag that was presented a few weeks later and explained its meaning:
a yellow border and on it a goat, a pair of handcuffs and a double cross. [...] The handcuffs were symbolic of the freedom enjoyed by the District. The goat and double cross [...] speak more or less for themselves, while the yellow is symbolic of the lemon which the District is continually having handed it under the present system of government."
However, it seems the bill never made it through to become law. A decade later, the question reappeared. On September 16, 1934, Frederic Adrian Delano, chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission and the uncle of President Franklin D. Roosevelt unveiled his design for a District flag. His version was based on the American flag with the same 13 stripes. In place of the stars a map of Washington when the city was first projected in 1792 was added and was surrounded by pictures of the Capitol, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, Mount Vernon, the Supreme Court Building, the Lee Mansion and the Amphitheater at Arlington, the Dumbarton House in Georgetown and the Masonic Memorial and Christ Church in Alexandria. In the four corners were four American eagles. The map design was originally drawn by Mildred G. Burrage at his suggestion and was known as the handkerchief map. The design was copyrighted by the American Civic Association of which Mr. Delano was president. Printed in six colors, the handkerchiefs were sold for $1 each and the proceeds were used for the George Washington Memorial Parkway fund.
Creation of the District Flag Commission
By 1938, the D.A.R. had been campaigning for a District flag for over a decade. The effort was being spearheaded by the local D.A.R. Committee on Correct Use of the Flag. In 1937, the local Chapter was asked to present a District flag to Dahlgren Hall at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland to be hung along the flags of the 48 States (the States of Alaska and Hawaii did not joined the Union until 1959) provided by State societies for Navy Day. The State Chairman of the Flag Committee reached out to the District Commissioner who was unable to provide one since it did not exist. Through extensive lobbying to Congress, the search for a suitable flag was pushed forward.
On June 16, 1938, Congress requested by an Act that the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy and the president of the Board of Commissioners of the District of Columbia create "a commission to procure a design for a distinctive flag for the District of Columbia, the Seat of the Capital of the Nation". The selection of the design shall have the advice of the Commission of Fine Arts. The bill was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the same day.
The commission included the President of the Board of Commissioner Melvin C. Hazen, the Secretary of War Harry H. Woodring and the Secretary of the Navy Claude A. Swanson. They held a meeting on July 9, 1938 to discuss the plans of choosing a design. The Evening Star stated at the time that this was a first step for the people of Washington toward the District's sovereignty which would include the right to vote. It was hoped that this was a sign of concession to come on the matter. At the time, the District Commissioner was appointed by the President of the United States as were the two Secretaries as part of the Cabinet. It was not until 1975 that DC residents votes for their Mayor.
An announcement was made in the newspapers of a contest open to the public to submit design and ideas for the flag. The Heraldic Division of the War Department laid some heraldry and visibility rules. Arthur E. Du Bois was the heraldic expert of the Quartermaster General's Office and sat on the commission as an adviser. The Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy did not appear to actually be present on the commission but were represented by members of their staff.
Design submissions and selection
Charles Dunn submitted his 1921 design with the Washington coat of arms with all the charges in their original tincture of gules (red) in June 1938. In addition to the flag itself, he proposed the use of a Washington coat of arms in the canton (which he erroneously called a jack) for local organizations such as the American Legion. The organization would then use the rest of the space (the field) on the flag for their own emblem.
On August 24, 1938, the Evening Star announced that the Commission had met to review the designs. They were down to two submissions mentioned by name. The first one was Charles Dunn's design using Washington's coat of arms. The second was a submission by the American Liberty Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and designed by one of its members, Mrs. George T. Hawkins. On a blue background, a big gold star made up of 13 concentric lines representing the original Thirteen Colonies with the Capitol Building in the center. The star is encircled by 48 small gold stars representing the States in the Union. The words "DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA" written in gold could be added or removed from the bottom. A flag of Dunn's design was made and a display board of Hawkins design were shown to the reporters present at the announcement. Both designs were submitted to the Commission of Fine Arts for final review as the Commission "admitted a deadlock". The Fine Arts' meeting would take place in September.
Formal requests for local selection involvement
However, the Commission of Fine Arts had to delay the review as it wanted to study all of the 50-odd designs and some had not yet arrived as of September 3 when the meeting took place. The review was pushed by two weeeks to the next meeting.In addition, the Evening Star reported that the process of selecting the design was being questioned among those active in civic affairs. It was suggested that the Commission of Fine Arts use a more democratic process. This selection was "seen as a real opportunity to arouse interest and civic spirit through giving this voteless and unrepresented community an opportunity to have a part in the selection of the community colors under which it will in the future march with pride and devotion". 
The question of what the flag should represent was also discussed. The Evening Star asked the question in these terms: "what do any of the designs under consideration symbolize?" Some citizens asked the same question. In their September 8, 1938 meeting, the Association of Oldest Inhabitants asked that the Commission of Fine Arts collaborate with a special committee of native Washingtonians as they felt left out. On a letter to the Commissioner they stated their concerns:
Our association believes that such a flag, in order to be appropriate and truly representative of the District, must have some definite local significance. The designs under consideration appear to us to be symbolic of national rather than local sentiment. If it is to be our District of Columbia flag, surely District citizens should have a part in the selection of the design.
The Federation of Citizens' Association joined in this movement in early October. They requested that the Commission of Fine Arts give them the privilege to co-operate with them to the selection of the design. A special committee was to be appointed to seek this. A letter from the Association of Oldest Inhabitants to the Federation of Citizens' Association was sent on October 5, 1938 requesting that both groups collaborate on the selection of the design. The Kalorama Association sided with the other two associations on October 11 as they sent a letter to the Commission recommending that the choice of the design be left to the residents of the District.
Selection of the final design
On October 15, 1938, the Evening Star announces that a new flag has been adopted by the District Flag Commission and the Fine Arts Commission. After reviewing 50 designs, Washington's coat of arms was selected. The design was described as "paying honors to George Washington using the major elements of the emblem features of the family shield of the first President".
No longer will the District be ignominiously anonymous in times of patriotic events, parades and other celebrations where every State of the Union has its flag.— Commissioner Melvin C. Hazen
The following specifications were adopted:
The proportions of the design are prescribed in terms of the hoist, or vertical height, of the flag as follows: the upper white portion shall be 3⁄10 of the hoist; the two horizontal bars are each 2⁄10 of the hoist; the white area between the bars 1⁄10 of the hoist; and the base, or lowest white space, is 2⁄10 of the hoist. The three five-pointed stars have a diameter of 2⁄10 of the hoist and are spaced equidistant in the fly, or horizontal, dimension of the flag.
Design explanation and failure to credit local input
On October 16, all the details of the selections are given to the press and explained. It was explained that the Commissioner, who was the former District Surveyor, recalled seeing the coat of arms on a shield on hold maps. Upon research, a map by Ellicott engraved in 1792 by Thackara & Vallance in Philadelphia was found. The direct association of the First President with the establishment of the District and the Capital City bearing his name was sufficient to justify using heraldic symbolism in the flag to illustrate the historical connection. In his view, it explained why several designs included this idea.
Mr. Hazen was credited for having "brought to attention the basic elements of the simplified Washington shield" while Arthur E. Du Bois was credited for the details of the final design. Apart from the mention that many designs included these features and that 50 designs were submitted, there was no recognition of the contribution of the local residents in the process. He responded to the failure to include the local population (directly or through the civic associations) by stating that anyone interested could submit a design and that it would have been reviewed. No mention of Charles Dunn's contribution was made at the time. Fortunately his contribution was made public in 1957, when he published an article in the Records of the Columbia Historical Society entitled The Origins of the District of Columbia Flag were he reveals the process that took place from his point of view. When he died in 1978, no mention of his contribution was mentioned.
Commissioner Hazen also announced that the flag could first be flown at the Inter-American Horse Show at Meadowbrook Farm, in Montgomery County, Maryland on October 23, 1938, which would be designated as District Day. The Commissioner was one of the sponsors of the Show. However, the flag was first flown on October 18, 1938, on the District Building (now known as the John A. Wilson Building, the city council's offices) under the American flag. The flag measured 6.5 feet (2.0 m) feet by 9.5 feet (2.9 m).
Today, most sources state that Charles Dunn is the actual designer of the DC flag. It seems all historical accounts come from The Origins of the District of Columbia Flag he published in the Records of the Columbia Historical Society and the August 24, 1938, Evening Star article where he is mentioned as a finalist. However, according the commission set up by Congress and who had authority to choose the design, Commissioner Melvin C. Hazen is credited as playing a major role in the design and Arthur E. Du Bois as having done the final design. This appears to indicate that Hazen and Du Bois were seen as co-designers at the time. The criticisms that followed the announcement regarding the lack of local involvement seems to confirm that this was the accepted view at the time. The DC Council website no longer states that Dunn is the designer; when it stated it up until 2018 on the Commemorative D.C. Flag Program web page when the URL changed at the end of 2018.
The link to the Washington coat of arms is undeniable and has been stated by all parties as a source of inspiration for the DC flag. Therefore, from a heraldry perceptive, it seems that neither Dunn nor Hazen and Du Bois can lay claim to the design itself as being their own. In addition, as stated by the Commissioner himself, the use of the design and its first association with Washington City and the other territories of the District of Columbia dates back to 1792 when it appeared on the Ellicott map only two years after the District of Columbia was created and while President Washington was in office. This exact same design of the arms dates back to at least the 14th century in England and it seems the original designer would have lived at that time. No changes have been done between that time and the design set in 1938.
DC Government use
Starting in 1908 when the District Building was inaugurated to 1964, the flag of the United States was flown from a large flagpole located on the roof of the building. Due to concerns regarding the safety of the staff during inclement weather, two new poles were installed in front of the building. It was then that, for the first time, the DC flag was flown on the DC Government building grounds on a separate pole. Prior to that, it was flown under the American Flag.
The flag first appeared on the District of Columbia license plates known as the 1984 Capital City Baseplate starting on October 1, 1984. These plates were issued for new registrations and issued to motorists who had the old 1974 and 1978 series plates. This replacement process took place from October 1984 to September 1986.
The DC flag is used on all DC Government websites, publications, documents and equipment. It is used extensively on its own or integrated into some of the department logos and program logos. One notable exception is the patch of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia which had the Capitol building on it and never had the DC flag on it.
Elements of the design are used extensively in local politics. The three stars and bars or the colors are often used by candidates and causes on their signs during local elections.
In 2002, the D.C. Council debated a proposal to change the flag in protest of the District's lack of voting rights in Congress. The new design would have added the letters "D.C." to the center star and the words "Taxation Without Representation" in white to the two red bars, a slogan already in use on the District's license plates. The change presumably would have been temporary and revoked once the city achieved equal representation or statehood. It passed the council on a 10–2 vote, but support for the proposal soon eroded, and then-mayor Anthony A. Williams never signed the bill.
In spite of its adoption by a non-elected Commission of federally appointed members, the DC flag has become a symbol of local identity and local self-governance in the 21st Century. Today, it is used extensively by the DC Government's Statehood Campaign, activists and citizens fighting for the District of Columbia to become the 51st State of the Union. It is also a non-partisan symbol and is extensively by all parties in the District including Democrats, Republicans and Green Party in their campaigns and websites.
City Council Commemorative Flag Program
Starting on June 1, 2017, the D.C. City Council began a new commemorative flag program, which is similar to the United States flag program operated by the Congressional Keeper of the Stationery and requested through a constituent's U.S. Senator or U.S. Representative. In the case of the DC flag, interested parties can fill out an online form on the DC Council's website providing a credit card or by sending a letter with applicable check or money order to the Secretary of the City Council requesting a 3×5 or 4×6 District of Columbia flag; once the request is received a flag is taken and then flown on one of several flagpoles at the John A. Wilson Building. After the flag has been flown it is then packaged and sent to the requester with an accompanying certificate that authenticates the flag was flown at the top of a flagpole at the Wilson Building.
DC Flag Day
Flag Day is celebrated in the United-States on June 14. The Neighbors United for DC Statehood has been organizing the DC Flag Day Photo Contest since 2013 (with the exception of 2016). It celebrates the DC flag and pride while advocating for DC Statehood on their website and on social media using the hashtag #DCFlagDay. In 2018, the contest was organized in several categories:
- Best Ward: given to the Council member to the highest volume of constituent tweets with the flag (won by Ward 6)
- Best Campaign Team: given to the best Campaign team bringing DC Love
- Best Advocacy: for the best photo encouraging a specific House or Senate member not yet cosponsoring the statehood bills in Congress
- Best Group: given to a community group (won by Mayor Muriel Bowser)
- Best Elected Official: given to a local elected official (won by Brianne Nadeau)
- Best Agency: given to a local Government Agency (won by DOEE)
- Best Business: given to a business promoting the DC flag and its business
- Best Non-Profit: given to a non-profit representing the love of Washington, DC and their organization (won by DC Vote)
- Artistic Expression: given for the most artistic photo
- Best Pet: given for the "most cute, quirky, or compelling photo of a non-human living thing"
- Best Friend in a State: given to a person or group from one of the 50 States imploring their Representative or Senator to support the Statehood Movement or thank them for doing so (won by Eleanor Norton)
- Best Statehood Shot: given for the best photo symbolic of the fight for statehood (won by Charles Allen) 
Voter's Guide upside-down flag incident
On October 16, 2014, ahead of the November 4 elections, it was discovered that the DC flag was put upside down on the DC Voters Guide sent to residents in the district the previous day. It was originally reported by Denise Tolliver, the District of Columbia Board of Elections' spokesperson, that the inverted flag was placed as a way to draw attention to the upcoming election. The turnout at the previous election was at a historic low with only 27% turnout. Later that day, after checking with the printer, the Executive Director, Clifford Tatum, confirmed that it was indeed an error. According to him, a member of the design team had stylized the logo in past elections. He stated that "[The Board] ha[s] done different things with the flag in the past. Her idea was the bars would be above the stars.” Since the error was found after they were published, it appears someone came up with the cover-up idea of it being intentional. Ward 5 Council Member Kenyan McDuffie stated “My impression is that this was not an intentional act, and it was an error. And if it was intentional, then it was ridiculous that anyone would sanction that.” The board issued an apology and acknowledged both issues with the DC flag properly oriented as a watermark:
Well, we messed up. BIG time. The cover of the Voter’s Guide recently mailed to you had an image of the District’s flag turned upside down. That is our fault, and we apologize for displaying the flag in that manner. If that weren’t enough, we also fumbled our handling of the issue, and we apologize to you for that as well.— District of Columbia Board of Elections
Until 2013, the DC flag was not automatically raised at events in the United States Armed Forces along the flags of the 50 states. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 was signed into law by President Barack Obama on January 2013 contained a provision that required just that the DC flag and the flags of the territories be displayed whenever the flags of the states are displayed. This legislation was pushed by Delegate to the House of Representatives Eleanor Holmes Norton.
The design has been embraced by the public in the 20th century and it has become a symbol of the city.
The following local sports teams have integrated the flag in their logos:
It has been used by many local brands in their logos to show their local connection. One such example is DC Brau Brewing whose logo includes the DC flag on the US Capitol. The Department of Small and Local Business Development established the Made in DC program "to capture, highlight and promote the intellectual and creative genius of DC’s local maker community". The logo includes the DC flag as part of its design.
It has also been used extensively as a tattoo design by local residents to show their connection to the city. Some notable people include Ward 3 Council Member Mary Cheh and radio host Kojo Nnamdi who along with Tom Sherwood, political analyst at the local National Public Radio WAMU agreed to get tattooed in for a $3,000 donation to the public supported station. It was announced on air on October 23, 2015 and the tattoos took place on November 20, 2015.
Criticism of the design
No local involvement in the selection
The new flag was not well received by many in the local population at the time. The failure to involve the local population in the selection of their flag did not go unnoticed and many found new meanings for the stars and bars with many negative symbols and parallels.
With the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801, the new federal district was placed under the sole authority of Congress. In the process, DC residents lost voting representation in Congress as they were no longer part of a US state. They also lost representation in the Electoral College and the right to home rule. By 1938, the residents were still fighting for these rights. The Twenty-third Amendment restored the right to vote in the Electoral College and on December 24, 1973, the District of Columbia Home Rule Act allowed the residents to elect a mayor and the 13-member Council of the District of Columbia.
In 1938 however, the situation was much different. The Evening Star points out that while the residents of the District had now a flag, they were still without a vote or representation. The refusal to involve local participation in spite of multiple requests of local civic associations was a clear sign that nothing had changed in terms of local representation and involvement in the Federally controlled government. The lack of local significance or symbolism was also criticized and new interpretations of the flag were found. The two red stripes were seen as representing the Senate and House of Representatives where DC residents were not represented, while the three stars represented the three Commissioners who ruled over the city with accountability to the people who were innocent and represented in white.
The Chairman of the Flag Committee of the Society of Natives noted:
One critic finds fault with the absence of blue and of the predominance of red. This suggests that it is well this action of the Flag Commission did not occur in the stirring days of the “red rider.” Surely the hand of Moscow would have been suspected of animating the commission had this banner bearing so much red been born at that time.
A citizen had similar views. He describes his vision of the flag which he considers "a misfit for a flag to represent the seat of government of the greatest free country of the earth":
Leaving out the blue of heaven, there is sandwiched in between irregular strips of the white of purity, two crimson cross bars of Stalin-hued tyranny, or the scarlet-colored brand of universal shame. To make the redness redder, the spotless white of purity is further splotched with red stars. And it is a shame to flaunt redistic bars and "stars,” behind which the citizens of the District are found fettered in political degradation like unto that of the desperate convict or the violently insane.— Joseph W. Cheyney
Over time attitudes toward the design changed and it went from being rejected to being embraced including by the Statehood movement in the District of Columbia.
Weak heraldic legitimacy
Law of arms
In the English tradition, the use of a coat of arms is regulated by the Law of heraldic arms. Traditions, inheritances and genealogy are extremely important in heraldry. Coats of arms do not belong to a surname or a family but to a specific individual who passes it on through one male line at their death. No two individuals can have the same coat of arms. Therefore, cadencies and brizures were used to make the coat of arms distinct from one son to another. Upon the father's death, only one son would drop the distinctive sign he had been using until then. This son would usually be the oldest one based on the primogeniture system in place at the time. Along with the estate and title, the coat of arms would usually go to that some heir. Arms are not transmitted to daughters unless there is no alternative male heir.
Charles Boutell, the renowned 19th Century heraldist states in his classic Heraldry, Historical and Popular:
Sound Heraldry certainly determines both that the true title to Arms is Inheritance, and that true Inheritance of Arms descends with the direct lineage. [...] In tracing descent, male issue always has the preference; and where there exist several male descendants equal in the degree of their hereditary relationship, the eldest always has the preference.
It is well documented that George Washington, a British subject until the Revolutionary War, used this coat of arms extensively at Mount Vernon and on many objects. However, based on his genealogy and rules regulating English coats of arms, it is not clear if George Washington legitimately would have been the proper heir. It appears that George Washington was actually studying his family heritage later in life both in terms of genealogy and heraldry as visible in his correspondence with the College of Arms represented by Isaac Heard from 1791 to 1796.
The coat of arms in question is blazoned as:
Argent two bars gules, in chief three mullets of the second.
According to records available, this coat of arms was granted to Lawrence Washington of Sulgrave Manor in 1592 by Robert Cook, Clarenceux King of Arms. He was the last known recorded grantee of that specific design by the College of Arms.
Lawrence would have passed it down to one of his descendants upon his death as it was the tradition. Lawrence Washington had two sons: John (1589-1688) and Lawrence (1602-1652). Sir John Washington was the oldest and appears to have received the estate along with the title and would have also received the coat of arm. Lawrence Washington was the youngest. As was often the case of younger children, he entered the clergy as he seems to not have had received the estate and became a rector. He probably would not have received the arms unaltered. John had three sons and one of them at least had a son of his own. The coat of arms would have followed this family branch if John had received it from his father.
Lawrence's oldest son, John Washington (1631-1677) was the earliest ancestor to arrive in America with his youngest brother. He settled in the Colony of Virginia in 1656. Unless his father had received the coat of arms of his own father, his coat of arms would have been the altered one. It would have been the variance that would have arrived in Virginia with him. It is mentioned in Crozier's General Armory that John was using the coat of arms in Virginia in 1657. However this armorial was published 250 years later in 1904 and the author does no cite his sources for the coat of arms. It could well be that William Armstrong Crozier was deducting the fact that John had it because George Washington was using them a century and a half later.
There seems to have been no official recordings of this coat of arms in the colonies so it remains unclear who used coat of arms between John Washington who settled in 1656 and the Revolutionary war. It is said that it was engraved on Elizabeth Washington (1717-1734/35), George Washington cousin. It appears that the coat of arms had been used by the family in the Colony for some time as George Washington reported in his letter to Sir Isaac Heard on May 2, 1792.  George himself had started using it as early as 1755, when he purchased goods with the coat of arms.
By the end of the 18th Century when George Washington uses that coat of arms, it appears that many others (including close cousins in Virginia) could have had higher or equivalent claims to the use of the coat of arms based on his genealogy. George's father, Augustine Washington (1694-1743) was not the oldest son. He had an older brother, John Washington (1692-1746) who could have had priority over Augustine with regards in claiming the coat of arms. That is assuming that the unaltered coat of arms had indeed been passed down legitimately this far. John himself had sons who could have received the unaltered coat of arms in that instance.
The below genealogical chart shows highlighted all the other direct male heirs of Lawrence Washington of Sulgrave Manor who could have potentially laid claim to his coat of arms both in England and in Virginia. His relationship with George Washington is marked in bold.
While the United States were no longer under British rule after its independence, the correspondence we have from George Washington shows that the question of heraldry remains relevant to him personally. The earliest communication we have from his regarding this happens in 1788 with William Barton. The question was raised with regards to the design of the Great Seal of the United States and the possible need for regulations which George Washington was reluctant to the idea because of the fragility of the Union. At the time, he described himself as "imperfectly acquainted with the subject of heraldry. In his view "it might not [...] be advisable to stir any question, that would tend to reanimate the dying embers of faction, or blow the dormant spark of jealousy into an inextinguishable flame."
A couple years, later the same President was in communication with Isaac Heard, who was the Garter Principal King of Arms to inquire about his family's coat of arms. The communication seems to be centered around the genealogical question. In the December 7, 1791 letter, Mr. Heard is requesting additional information regarding George Washington's ancestry as he seem to not have that information available. Mr. Washington responds on May 2, 1792 that he will probably not be able to provide this pedigree due to the lack of centralized records. He has been researching the historical family link to England and acknowledges that he is unsure about the exact location in England. It is in this letter that he mentions the resemblance of the arms:
The Arms enclosed in your letter are the same that are held by the family here—though I have also seen, and have used as you may perceive by the Seal to this Packet a flying Griffen for the Crest.
In an August 9, 1793, Mr. Heard informs Mr. Washington that he is still trying to prove that he is a direct descendant from Lawrence Washington who was granted the coat of arms and is requesting more information. The question appears to have not been resolved by July 10, 1796. He was still attempting to find the proof that the first immigrants (John and Lawrence) were in fact Lawrence Washington of Soulgrove's descendants. No further letter is known to exist between the two and George Washington passed away on December 14, 1799.
The coat of arms that is used today on the District of Columbia Flag is the one granted to Lawrence Washington in England in 1592. It is associated to George Washington because he used it too. George Washington was five generations removed from Lawrence Washington and has two direct male ancestors who were not first in line. It is very unlikely that the coat of arms would remain unchanged and without cadences for George Washington to use in the 1700s. However, only the College of Arms and the High Court of Chivalry would be able to make a definite determination in the matter. Based on his letters, it seems that his usage of the arms was based on the limited information available at time in the colonies and may have been done in good faith. He may not even had been aware that the coat of arms did not belong to the family but to an individual as he seems to hint in his May 2, 1792 letter.
Since coat of arms are not protected under any US law, it could be argued that this criticism is irrelevant and that the first President could lay claim to it as he wished which he seems to have done. However, based on his correspondence, it seems he was also very interested in finding facts about his family and its history by contacting reliable sources such as the College of Arms represented by Isaac Heard. It seems his usage of the coat of arms, whether legitimate or not was anchored in family tradition.
Praise for the design
The design has received extensive praise from the North American Vexillological Association in the 20th century. In a publication titled "Good Flag, Bad Flag", the organization sets five basic principles of flag design:
- Keep it simple
- Use meaningful symbolism
- Use 2–3 basic colors
- No lettering or seals
- Be distinctive or be related
Based on these standards, the flag of the District of Columbia adheres to at least four of the five principles.
2001 State/Provincial Flag Survey
In 2001, the flag placed eighth in design quality out of the 72 Canadian provincial, U.S. state, and U.S. territory flags ranked. The DC flag was also behind its neighbor Maryland but ahead of Virginia who ranked 54th. 
|1. New Mexico
||7. Puerto Rico
||8. District of Columbia
||9. Marshall Islands
||10. South Carolina|
2004 American City Flags Survey
|1. Washington, DC
||2. Chicago, IL
||3. Denver, CO
||4. Phoenix, AZ
||5. St. Louis, MO
||6. Wichita, KS
||7. Portland, OR
||8. Indianapolis, IN
||9. Louisville, KY*
||10. Corpus Christi, TX|
* Louisville, KY changed flag in 2004 after the results were published. Displayed is the flag flown at the time of this poll.
- George Washington
- Seal of the District of Columbia
- Flag of the United States
- Flag of Maryland
- Flag and seal of Virginia
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- Fine Arts Members to Pass on Flag - Evening Star - August 26, 1938 - Page B-1
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- Civic Federation Opposes Moves For Safety Body - Evening Star - October 02, 1938 - Page B-1
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- A reference to the "red rider" which forbade DC schools from using federal funds "for the payment of salary of any person teaching or advocating Communism". It was voted by Congress on the June 14, 1935 appropriations for the District of Columbia (H.R. 3973 - Public, No. 138) and repealed in 1937.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Flag of Washington, D.C..|
- "Official Symbols of the District of Columbia". Government of the District of Columbia.