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.”
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.”