Timeline of the flag of the United States

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  • 1776 January 1 – The Continental Colours is displayed on Prospect Hill. It has 13 alternate red and white stripes representing the Thirteen Colonies and the British Union Jack, in a square in the upper left-hand corner.[1]
  • 1776 May – A popular legend promulgated by the descendants of Betsy Ross holds that the seamstress sewed the first American flag. The claim is widely discredited by historians.[2]
  • 1777 June 14 – Continental Congress adopts the following: "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."[3]
  • 1787 Captain Robert Gray carries the flag around the world on his sailing vessel (around the tip of South America, to China, and beyond).
  • 1795 Flag with 15 stars and 15 stripes (added Vermont, Kentucky to the original Thirteen Colonies)
  • 1814 September 14 – Francis Scott Key writes "The Star-Spangled Banner". It officially becomes the national anthem in 1931.
  • 1818 Flag with 20 stars and 13 stripes (it remains at 13 hereafter) (Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana, Mississippi added).
  • 1819 Flag with 21 stars (Illinois)
  • 1820 Flag with 23 stars (Alabama, Maine) first flag on Pikes Peak
  • 1822 Flag with 24 stars (Missouri)
  • 1836 Flag with 25 stars (Arkansas)
  • 1837 Flag with 26 stars (Michigan)
  • 1845 Flag with 27 stars (Florida)
  • 1846 Flag with 28 stars (Texas)
  • 1847 Flag with 29 stars (Iowa)
  • 1848 Flag with 30 stars (Wisconsin)
  • 1851 Flag with 31 stars (California)
  • 1858 Flag with 32 stars (Minnesota)
  • 1859 Flag with 33 stars (Oregon)
  • 1861 Flag with 34 stars; (Kansas) Note: Even after the South seceded from the Union, President Lincoln would not allow any star to be removed from the flag. • First Confederate Flag (Stars and Bars) adopted in Montgomery, Alabama
  • 1863 Flag with 35 stars (West Virginia)
  • 1865 Flag with 36 stars (Nevada)
  • 1867 Flag with 37 stars (Nebraska)
  • 1869 First flag on a postage stamp
  • 1876 Flag with 38 stars (Colorado)
  • 1889 Flag with 39 stars that never was. Flag manufacturers believed that the two Dakotas would be admitted as one state and so manufactured this flag, some of which still exist. It was never an official flag.
  • 1890 Flag with 43 stars (North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho)
  • 1891 Flag with 44 stars (Wyoming)
  • 1892 "Pledge of Allegiance" first published in a magazine called "The Youth's Companion," written by Francis Bellamy.
  • 1896 Flag with 45 stars (Utah)
  • 1897 Adoption of State Flag Desecration Statutes – By the late 1800s an organized flag protection movement was born in reaction to perceived commercial and political misuse of the flag. After supporters failed to obtain federal legislation, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota became the first States to adopt flag desecration statutes. By 1932, all of the States had adopted flag desecration laws. In general, these State laws outlawed: (i) placing any kind of marking on the flag, whether for commercial, political, or other purposes; (ii) using the flag in any form of advertising; and (iii) publicly mutilating, trampling, defacing, defiling, defying or casting contempt, either by words or by act, upon the flag. Under the model flag desecration law, the term "flag" was defined to include any flag, standard, ensign, or color, or any representation of such made of any substance whatsoever and of any size that evidently purported to be said flag or a picture or representation thereof, upon which shall be shown the colors, the stars and stripes in any number, or by which the person seeing the same without deliberation may believe the same to represent the flag of the U.S.
  • 1907 Halter v. Nebraska (205 U.S. 34) – The Supreme Court held that although the flag was a federal creation, the States' had the authority to promulgate flag desecration laws under their general police power to safeguard public safety and welfare. Halter involved a conviction of two businessmen selling "Stars and Stripes" brand beer with representations of the U.S. flag affixed to the labels. The defendants did not raise any First Amendment claim.
  • 1908 Flag with 46 stars (Oklahoma)
  • 1909 Robert Peary places the flag his wife sewed atop the North Pole. He left pieces of another flag along the way. He was never censured for his action.
  • 1912 Flag with 48 stars (New Mexico, Arizona)
  • 1931 Stromberg v. California (283 U.S. 359) – The Supreme Court found that a State statute prohibiting the display of a "red flag" as a sign of opposition to organized government unconstitutionally infringed on the defendant's First Amendment rights. Stromberg represented the Court's first declaration that "symbolic speech" was protected by the First Amendment.
  • 1942 Federal Flag Code (36 U.S.C. 171 et seq.) – On June 22, 1942, President Roosevelt approved the Federal Flag Code, providing for uniform guidelines for the display and respect shown to the flag. The Flag Code does not prescribe any penalties for non-compliance nor does it include any enforcement provisions, rather it functions simply as a guide for voluntary civilian compliance.
  • 1943 West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (319 U.S. 624) – The Supreme Court held that public school children could not be compelled to salute the U.S. flag. In a now famous passage, Justice Jackson highlighted the importance of freedom of expression under the First Amendment: Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order. If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion.
  • 1945 The flag that flew over Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, is flown over the White House on August 14, when the Japanese accepted surrender terms.
  • 1949 August 3 – Truman signs bill requesting the President call for a Flag Day (June 14) observance each year by proclamation.
  • 1954 By act of Congress, the words "Under God" are inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance
  • 1959 Flag with 49 stars (Alaska)
  • 1960 Flag with 50 stars (Hawaii)
  • 1963 Flag placed on top of Mount Everest by Barry Bishop.
  • 1968 Adoption of Federal Flag Desecration Law (18 U.S.C. 700 et seq.) – Congress approved the first federal flag desecration law in the wake of a highly publicized Central Park flag burning incident in protest of the Vietnam War. The federal law made it illegal to "knowingly" cast "contempt" upon "any flag of the United States by publicly mutilating, defacing, defiling, burning or trampling upon it." The law defined flag in an expansive manner similar to most States.
  • 1969 July 20 – Neil Armstrong places the American flag on the Moon.
  • 1969 Street v. New York (394 U.S. 576) – The Supreme Court held that New York could not convict a person based on his verbal remarks disparaging the flag. Street was arrested after he learned of the shooting of civil rights leader James Meredith and reacted by burning his own flag and exclaiming to a small crowd that if the government could allow Meredith to be killed, "we don't need no damn flag." The Court avoided deciding whether flag burning was protected by the First Amendment, and instead overturned the conviction based on Street's oral remarks. In Street, the Court found there was not a sufficient governmental interest to warrant regulating verbal criticism of the flag.
  • 1972 Smith v. Goguen (415 U.S. 94) – The Supreme Court held that Massachusetts could not prosecute a person for wearing a small cloth replica of the flag on the seat of his pants based on a State law making it a crime to publicly treat the flag of the United States with "contempt". The Massachusetts statute was held to be unconstitutionally "void for vagueness."
  • 1974 Spence v. Washington (418 U.S. 405) – The Supreme Court held that the State of Washington could not convict a person for attaching removable tape in the form of a peace sign to a flag. The defendant had attached the tape to his flag and draped it outside of his window in protest of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State killings. The Court again found under the First Amendment there was not a sufficient governmental interest to justify regulating this form of symbolic speech. Although not a flag burning case, this represented the first time the Court had clearly stated that protest involving the physical use of the flag should be seen as a form of protected expression under the First Amendment.
  • 1970–1980 Revision of State Flag Desecration Statutes – During this period legislatures in some 20 States narrowed the scope of their flag desecration laws in an effort to conform to perceived Constitutional restrictions under the Street, Smith, and Spence cases and to more generally parallel the Federal Law (i.e., focusing more specifically on mutilation and other forms of physical desecration, rather than verbal abuse or commercial or political misuse).
  • 1989 Texas v. Johnson (491 U.S. 397) – The Supreme Court upheld the Texas Court of Criminal appeals finding that Texas law – making it a crime to "desecrate" or otherwise "mistreat" the flag in a way the "actor knows will seriously offend one or more persons" – was unconstitutional as applied. This was the first time the Supreme Court had directly considered the applicability of the First Amendment to flag burning. Gregory Johnson, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, was arrested during a demonstration outside of the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas after he set fire to a flag while protesters chanted "America, the red, white, and blue, we spit on you." In a 5–4 decision authored by Justice Brennan, the Court first found that burning the flag was a form of symbolic speech subject to protection under the First Amendment. The Court also determined that under United States v. O'Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968), since the State law was related to the suppression of freedom of expression, the conviction could only be upheld if Texas could demonstrate a "compelling" interest in its law. The Court next found that Texas' asserted interest in "protecting the peace" was not implicated under the facts of the case. Finally, while the Court acknowledged that Texas had a legitimate interest in preserving the flag as a "symbol of national unity", this interest was not sufficiently compelling to justify a "content based" legal restriction (i.e., the law was not based on protecting the physical integrity of the flag in all circumstances, but was designed to protect it from symbolic protest likely to cause offense to others).
  • 1989 Revision of Federal Flag Desecration Statute – Pursuant to the Flag Protection Act of 1989, Congress amended the 1968 federal flag desecration statute in an effort to make it "content neutral" and conform to the Constitutional requirements of Johnson. As a result, the 1989 Act sought to prohibit flag desecration under all circumstances by deleting the statutory requirement that the conduct cast contempt upon the flag and narrowing the definition of the term "flag" so that its meaning was not based on the observation of third parties.
  • 1990 - United States v. Eichman (496 U.S. 310) – Passage of the Flag Protection Act resulted in a number of flag burning incidents protesting the new law. The Supreme Court overturned several flag burning convictions brought under the Flag Protection Act of 1989. The Court held that notwithstanding Congress' effort to adopt a more content neutral law, the federal law continued to be principally aimed at limiting symbolic speech.
  • 1990 - Rejection of Constitutional Amendment – Following the Eichman decision, Congress considered and rejected a Constitutional Amendment specifying that "the Congress and the States have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States." The amendment failed to muster the necessary two-thirds Congressional majorities, as it was supported by only a 254 – 177 margin in the House (290 votes were necessary) and a 58 – 42 margin in the Senate (67 votes were necessary).
  • 1995 – The Flag Desecration Constitutional Amendment is narrowly defeated in the Senate. The Amendment to the Constitution would make burning the flag a punishable crime.
  • 2005 - U.S. House of Representatives passes a new flag desecration constitutional amendment
  • 2006 – U.S. Senate rejects new constitutional amendment
  • 2007 - The longevity of the 50-star flag is tied with that of the 48-star flag, both having experienced 47 years of continuous use.[citation needed] After this date, the 50-star flag became the longest-used version of the U.S. flag.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Congress, Joint Committee on Printing (1989). Our Flag. Darby, PA: Diane Pub Co. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-7881-0219-6. 
  2. ^ Marc Leepson, "Five myths about the American flag", The Washington Post, June 12, 2011, p. B2.
  3. ^ "Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, 8:464".