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Stars and Stripes: 1777

On 1 January 1776 George Washington has a new flag hoisted on Prospect Hill, visible to his colonial troops besieging the British in Boston. It is the British red ensign with a subtle and striking difference. The British ensign is a red flag showing in its top left corner the union jack (the red cross of St George and the white diagonal cross of St Andrew, representing the union of England and Scotland).

Washington's flag introduces a powerful new element of symbolism by means of a simple device. Six horizontal white bars are imposed on the red background, turning it into thirteen stripes of red and white to symbolize the thirteen colonies.

Known to its contemporaries as the continental flag or congress colours (but subsequently as the Grand Union Flag), this design sends a clear message. The colonists are not rebels, for their flag is British. But the thirteen stripes make it plain that they are standing together on a point of principle.

Later in 1776, after the Declaration of Independence, this message is out of date. To symbolize the change, congress replaces the union jack in the corner with a blue panel displaying thirteen stars. The thirteen colonies are now on their own and are proud of it. The new national flag is formally adopted on 14 June 1777.

This design, later known as the Stars and Stripes (and also as the Star-Spangled Banner from the patriotic poem of 1814 by Francis Scott Key) proves a perfect national emblem for a growing state - with a built-in flexibility akin to that of the US constitution. The first two extra stars to be added to the thirteen are those representing Vermont and Kentucky, in 1795. By 1960 there are fifty stars with the original thirteen stripes. The design brilliantly displays at any time the present condition and the proud origins of the United States.

The new flag receives its first international recognition when John Paul Jones flies it on the Ranger, in February 1778, and is saluted by the French fleet in Quiberon Bay.