Why the U.S. Flag is Red, White and Blue

Every Fourth of July, we flaunt Uncle Sam hats, wave our flag, and watch fireworks shoot sparks into the night sky. But many never even stop to ask the question, "Why does America salute the red, white and blue?"

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American geologist and Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Hagan Schmitt stands next to the US flag on the surface of the moon, during a period of EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site, December 1972.

Every Fourth of July, we flaunt Uncle Sam hats, wave our flag, and watch fireworks shoot sparks into the night sky. But many never even stop to ask the question, “Why does America salute the red, white and blue?”

On June 14, 1777 in Philadelphia, the Marine Committee of the Second Continental Congress adopted a resolution that read the following: “Resolved, that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation.”

And with these words, the Stars and Stripes were born. Yet the resolution never said a word about the significance behind the choice of red, white and blue. And for good reason. The three colors did not have any official meaning when the flag was adopted in 1777.

The colors and their significance still trace back to the birth of the country, and had very specific meanings in the creation of the Great Seal a year earlier. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress passed a resolution authorizing a committee to develop a seal for the country. The committee was instructed to draw up a seal that reflected the Founding Fathers’ beliefs and values, as well as the sovereignty of the new nation. Red, white and blue were chosen, and the Great Seal was officially adopted on June 20, 1782.

Heraldic devices such as seals have specific meanings for each element and color, and the U.S. Seal was no exception. Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, explained the significance to Congress when he presented the seal. “The colors,” Thomson said at the time, “are those used in the flag of the United States of America. White signifies purity and innocence. Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue… signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice.”

u.s. seal

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

Mike Buss, a flag expert with the American Legion, says that the most obvious reason for the flag’s colors is that they were simply taken from our mother country’s flag — the Union Jack of England. “Our heritage does come from Great Britain, and that was some of the thought process that went about in coming up with our flag,” Buss says of the American flag’s red, white and blue. “They come from the three colors that the Founding Fathers had served under or had been exposed to.”

Over the years people have altered Thomson’s original interpretation. Some now say that red represents the blood spilled by the patriots and those who fight to protect our country. President Reagan even put his own spin on the matter when he proclaimed 1986 the Year of the Flag. “The colors of our flag signify the qualities of the human spirit we Americans cherish,” Reagan said. “Red for courage and readiness to sacrifice; white for pure intentions and high ideals; and blue for vigilance and justice.”

The significance behind the flag’s design is more commonly known than that of its colors. The 50 stars stand for America’s 50 states, while the 13 red and white stripes represent the 13 colonies. But there’s also a lesser-known interpretation for the Stars and Stripes. The House of Representatives’ 1977 book about the flag states: “The star is a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial; the stripe is symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the sun.”

Although most Americans today aren’t aware of the specific symbolism behind the flag’s red, white and blue, flag expert Buss is not concerned. Instead, he believes the flag’s power to evoke patriotism and pride after all these years is most important.

“For us veterans, the flag represents why we served,” Buss says. “We were there because the flag represented our freedoms — freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion.”

Pedestrian carrying an umbrella walks through a Memorial Day display of United States flags on the Boston Common in Boston

Brian Snyder / REUTERS
13 comments
JdReader
JdReader

Those were the only color of dyes available in those colonies.

formerlyjames
formerlyjames

It is all obviously related to the Russian flag colors and our July 4th anthem 1812 Overture, which has nothing to do with the War of 1812, but Napoleon's invasion of Russia.  Oh, and the French flag, too. 

jayhowar
jayhowar

"The Union Jack of England"

You've got to be kidding me. When will American 'writers' do their homework?

roknsteve
roknsteve

Conservatives need to read that every morning.  They seem to be lost in the wilderness.  Three cheers for the red, white and blue.  Happy 4th of July to all.

vex
vex

The statement "On June 14, 1777 in Philadelphia, the Marine Committee of the Second Continental Congress adopted a resolution ..." is wrong. The Marine Committee is the chief suspect as AUTHOR of the resolution (we are not entirely certain), but it was the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS that adopted the flag resolution.

live-it
live-it

@JdReader


To know where you're going - you must know where you've come from. To know where you come from and ensure it’s remembered for all time, you stake your colours to the land. You take your values and use simple patterns to code your standard - so all who see, be it in cloudy weather or smoke filled battle fields know your present - that your here and here to stay, you draw on your ancestry and belief’s be it new belief’s but still draw and honour parents, grandparents values and you embed them in your colours. RED, WHITE & BLUE. It was’nt recorded in 1776/77 as it didn't need to be as all present new exactly what the colours represented it didn't need to be recorded, deep routed in family and loyalty and homeland but stubben in the new belief’s of a new generation who stood up to the establishment and oppression but held their county men’s values and fought a fight for the oppressed in new lands and old lands too.


‘To know who you are you must know where you’ve come from.’


MarkTsmx
MarkTsmx

@jayhowar I agree with you. The idea for the colors came from the Union Jack. That's what we were taught in elementary school. 

Still the meaning keeps changing over time but its obvious that early Americans were from Britain and wanted independence but identification that they were from there.

blindkid79
blindkid79

@roknsteveIt speaks volumes about someone that they would make such a lame attempt to try & politicize something like this. And make no mistake, it was undoubtedly a lame attempt. At no point in this article was there anything that could have in any way been perceived as favorable toward one American political ideology over another. It's a historical piece celebrating a part of America's history. All of America, not just a particular segment with which you happen to have an ideological disagreement. Yet, you decided you wanted to try and be divisive, w/ no actual basis on anything, stated or implied. "Happy 4th of July to all." Yes, except "Conservatives" I suppose. Grow up.

MuricanBob
MuricanBob

Conservatives need to read much more than that. But I believe they will be lost no matter what, happy 4th Steve!

AlexWright1
AlexWright1

@MarkTsmx @jayhowar @jayhowar Yeah we have our own flag in England thank you very much: the red St George's Cross on a white background. ;)


The Union Jack is the flag of the United Kingdom not England, made up of England's St George's Cross, Scotland's St Andrew's Cross, with the Irish  being added later.

MuricanBob
MuricanBob

LOL are you mad? Everything you have done and ever will do is "lame". Seriously, grow up before telling others to grow up. Do you never ever see those conservatives attacking "liberals" allllll the time? I'm sure you're one of them but god forbid you let those "liberal fktards" do the same to you. You really are a blind kid.