Who Designed the U.S. Flag?

The 4th of July is coming up in a few days, and already everyone in my hometown getting ready for a big, patriotic party. The stores are all selling red-white-and-blue decorations and have put hamburgers and hot dogs on sale. Even I’m planning on busting out the grill on the fourth as I celebrate my nation’s birthday. By far the most common sight this time of year, though, is the American flag, the good ol’ Stars-and-Stripes.

I’ve given my country’s flag the Cat Flag treatment before, but today, I wanted to talk about its history in more detail today. Specifically, I want to do one of my favorite things: answer a simple question that has a not-at-all simple answer. Who designed the flag?

Let’s start by getting one thing out of the way:

It was NOT designed by Betsy Ross

The year was 1870. William J. Canby went to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania with a story his aunt had told him about his grandmother. He claimed that in the spring of 1776, Elisabeth “Betsy” Ross had sewn the very first Stars-and-Stripes flag on the orders of George Washington himself. Over the years, this story has become a part of America’s national folklore, with her home being turned into a museum, a bridge named for her, and postage stamps issued to commemorate Ross’s memory.

Only one problem: there is zero direct historical evidence that this ever happened. That’s not to say it didn’t happen, mind you; historians consider this story “neither proven nor disproven”. Historians debate its merits based on what we know about the time period and what indirect evidence there may or may not be for such a meeting.

Even if the story is true, though, Betsy Ross didn’t design the flag itself. Canby’s telling of the event explicitly stated that Washington arrived with a design already drawn up for Ross to sew. According to Canby, Ross’s only contribution was changing the shape of the stars – Washington’s design had six-pointed stars, but Ross thought five-pointed stars looked better and were easier to make.

So, if Ross didn’t design the flag, who did?

The man who claimed to have designed the flag (and was stiffed)

Meet Francis Hopkinson. Before the Revolution, he had alternated between working as a customs officer and running his own business. When the war broke out, though, he became a member of the Continental Congress, where he was assigned to the Marine Committee. On June 14, 1777, the committee issued a resolution stating “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.”

It makes sense that the Marine Committee would take a keen interest in declaring an official U.S. flag, as American ships at sea would need to be able to identify each other and be identified by the navies of allied nations such as France. Prior to this, Americans used a wide variety of different flags, many of which included British flags like the Union Jack or St. George’s Cross, something that was a bit inappropriate now that the United States had declared its independence.

After the flag resolution was adopted, Hopkinson asserted that it was his design and began sending bills to Congress to pay him for it. He sent four formal requests to Congress to pay him. Congress never did.

Still, he must not have felt too bitter, as he continued to play a role in the new nation’s politics, participating in the Constitutional Convention and serving as a federal judge.

The high school student who designed the current 50-star flag (and got a B-)

Of course, the Stars and Stripes that Hopkinson (allegedly) designed was only used for a few years. As I mentioned on my blog before, as the nation grew the decision was made to add a star for each new state admitted to the Union. Over the years, the flag has undergone many, many redesigns.

Thus, when Hawaii was admitted to the Union as the 50th state in 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower needed a new design to squeeze in one more star.

A high school history class in Ohio decided that it would be fun to have the students come up with their own 50-star flag designs for a class assignment. One of the students, Robert G. Heft, turned in a flag that was pretty simple, laying out all 50 stars in a square, using alternating rows of six and five stars. Heft received a B- for his design. After class, Heft made a deal with his teacher: if his flag design was actually adopted, the grade would be changed to an A. Probably laughing at how preposterous the odds were that Heft’s design would ever be accepted, the teacher said, “you’re on.”

What the teacher didn’t count on was that Heft lived near his local Congressman, and was able to use this connection to get his design in front of Eisenhower’s eyes. Of the thousands of proposed designs submitted by people across America, Eisenhower decided to go with Heft’s proposal. According to Heft, his teacher did hold up his end of the bargain and change his grade.

That’s right, a 17-year-old designed the flag you’re holding!

HAVE A HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY, AMERICA!