The Truth about Red, White and Blue–240th Anniversary
On Jun 20, 1782, the founders gave us virtues for the colors of the flag. What are they? Why should they be revived today?
What do the colors red, white, and blue mean? What are the virtues behind them, and why do they need to be revived today?
When the Continental Congress adopted the first official flag of the United States on June 14, 1777, they created a new, non-British identity. Gone were the 13 British colonies. Replacing them were the 13 United States of America acting as a sovereign independent nation. Through the flag’s 13 stars and 13 stripes, Congress declared that the meaning of the flag was Union.
Hence, the U.S. flag was and is a symbol uniting Americans in the common purpose of independence, liberty and freedom.
Missing on that first Flag Day in 1777, however, was an explanation about the colors. Why didn’t they describe the significance of red, white, and blue?
Because they were in the middle of prosecuting a war, Congress did not yet have the benefit of perspective. After all, it’s hard to reflect when you’re in the middle of the action or in the heat of battle. But that changed for the Continental Congress near the end of the Revolutionary War.
Great Seal of the United States
The Siege of Yorktown, the last major battle of the American Revolution, took place in October 1781. As they awaited a peace treaty from Europe, Congress took time to reflect and released the Great Seal of the United States on June 20, 1782.
“ARMS. Paleways of thirteen pieces, argent (red) and gules (white); a chief, azure; the escutcheon on the breast of the American bald eagle displayed proper, holding in his dexter (right) talon an olive branch, and in his sinister (left) a bundle of thirteen arrows, all proper, and in his beak a scroll, inscribed with this motto, ‘E pluribus Unum’ (out of many one),” Journal of the Continental Congress, June 20, 1782
The focal point of the Great Seal is the free-flying eagle. Because nothing held it down, the eagle beautifully symbolized independence. On the eagle’s breast, protecting the heart of the nation, was a red, white, and blue shield. In this moment, Congress defined the flag’s colors for the first time and gave the nation seven inspirational virtues that remain relevant.
“The colors of the pales [stripes] are those used in the flag of the United States of America,” the Journal of the Continental Congress recorded on June 20, 1782.
“White signifies purity and innocence. Red [means] hardiness and valor and Blue … signifies vigilance, perseverance, and justice.”
Red—Hardiness and Valor
By this time, Congress knew that thousands of soldiers had died in battle (6,800) and even more had died of disease (17,000). They chose valor as for one of the two virtues defining the color red. Valor is courage on the battlefield. With Yorktown fresh on their minds, Congress was well aware of the valor of Alexander Hamilton as he and his men had rushed a pivotal British redoubt at Yorktown.
Congress understood that the war had been won on both land and sea. Perhaps John Paul Jones, whom Congress had elevated to captain on the first flag day June 14, 1777, best expressed the virtue of valor in September 1779, when he declared this famous phrase in the heat of battle while his ship was sinking:
“Surrender? have not yet begun to fight!” Jones declared.
Jones went on to lose his ship but he won the battle, becoming America’s first naval war hero.
When Congress assigned the meaning of valor to red, they were aware of the many female camp followers who had nursed and fed soldiers. One of those followers demonstrated valor. Mary Hays McCauleyat, who had provided water at the Battle of Monmouth, had stepped into fight at the cannon after her husband was injured. Her nickname, Molly Pitcher, became a legend of feminine heroism.
When Congress defined the flag’s red stripes, they also knew of the valor of black heroes such as Peter Salem, a freed slave and minuteman who was credited with fatally shooting Major Pitcairn, a British officer, at the Battle of Bunker Hill. The patriots blamed Pitcairn for the first shots of the Revolutionary War when he ordered his men to fire at the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775.
Congress also chose hardiness as the other virtue behind the color red because hardiness is the ability to withstand all seasons. The Continental Army had demonstrated hardiness through the long slog of an eight-year war.
Hardiness particularly described General Henry Knox, who had commanded the artillery for the Continental Army. Like a hardy plant, Knox had withstood a winter blizzard while secretly hauling cannons from New York’s Fort Ticonderoga to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from December 1776 to January 1777. Knox’s efforts had led to victory in March 1776, when Washington’s men displayed the cannons at Dorchester Heights overlooking British supply ships coming into Boston Harbor. The British military evacuated Boston as a result of Knox’s hardiness.
Knox’s know-how and hardiness also led to the successful crossing of the artillery over the icy Delaware River on the night of December 25, 1776, which resulted in the victorious Battle of Trenton.
White—Purity and Innocence
The Continental Congress gave the white stars and stripes the virtues of purity and innocence. At first glance, these words are very gentle and seemingly out of place during a war.
Yet, Congress understood that innocence reflected on the children in their lives and their desire to give their offspring a country founded upon liberty and self-governance.
They knew of General Washington’s commitment to innocence. When he issued orders to his men before the Battle of Long Island in 1776, he told them that they weren’t just fighting for their firesides but for future firesides.
“The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army—Our cruel and unrelenting enemy leaves us no choice but a brave resistance, or the most abject submission,” George Washington, General Orders, July 2, 1776.
The Revolutionary War was a fight for the future of their children, the innocents in their lives.
The other virtue behind the white stars and stripes is purity, which speaks to motive. Someone who beautifully expressed the purity behind the motive of liberty was Phillis Wheatley, who became the first black American to become a published author through a 1773 book of her poetry.
Wheatley, like many Americans, had undergone a transformation from a loyalist devoted to the king into a patriot devoted to the cause of independence. In 1768 she wrote a poem praising King George III. But by 1775, she had changed. Instead Wheatley wrote a poem devoted to George Washington and liberty.
In this poem, Wheatley described America as “the land of freedom’s heaven-defended race.” This freed slave defined race not by skin color but by a shared hope for the pure cause of freedom. After she sent this poem to General Washington in Cambridge in 1775, he arranged through an aide to publish it in newspapers and sent her a thank you letter extolling her talent.
Congress understood the importance of motive. Early in the war, several Frenchmen had asked Congress for commissions to join the fight. But many of them proved to have motives of money and fame rather than true devotees to liberty. In contrast, when the nineteen-year-old Marquis de Lafayette first met General Washington, the Frenchman revealed his true motive and humility. Though trained as a French musketeer, Lafayette assured Washington that “I am here to learn, not to teach.”
Perhaps the virtues of purity and innocence symbolized by the white stars can best be understood through examples of their opposite meanings. When General Benedict Arnold committed treason by giving the plans of West Point to the British in 1780, the Continental Army, Congress and the people felt the sting of betrayal. He nearly succeeded in turning over this fort and also handing them George Washington, which would have ended the war in a victory for the British. Arnold’s motives were about personal glory and money, which the British military had offered him. Treason is the opposite of innocence and pure motives.
Likewise, Congress knew that corruption had played a role in King George III’s tyranny. When the crown began paying the salaries of judges and governors instead of the colonial legislatures, these government officials were no longer accountable to the people. Judges were also bribed to rule against the colonists.
A member of the Continental Congress, John Adams, explained that corruption had turned their world upside down.
“But when a government becomes totally corrupted, the system of God Almighty in the government of the world and the rules of all good government upon earth will be reversed. … Virtue, integrity and ability will become the objects of the malice, hatred and revenge of the men in power . . . In such times you will see a governor . . . whose welfare he was under every moral obligation to study and promote, ruin and destroy the people. . . You will see a philanthrop(ist)—for propagating as many lies and slanders against his country as ever fell from the pen of a sycophant—rewarded . . . The consequence of this will be that the iron rod of power will be stretched out vs. the poor people . . .”
One reason that the Continental Congress assigned virtues to the colors of the flag was to help preserve integrity among the people. John Adams warned that no matter the form of government, integrity was essential:
“The preservation of liberty depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the people. As long as knowledge and virtue are diffused generally among the body of a nation, it is impossible they should be enslaved. This can be brought to pass only by debasing their understandings, or by corrupting their hearts.
By emphasizing innocence and purity as virtues for the white stars and stripes, Congress sought to elevate the moral character of Americans and to steer them away from betrayal and corruption.
Blue—Vigilance, Perseverance and Justice
Vigilance means watchfulness. Sometimes watchfulness was spontaneous. When a Philadelphia Quaker named Lydia Darrah overheard a British officer discuss a surprise attack on Washington’s Army, she slipped out of town and walked to camp to warn Washington’ men. Her spontaneous vigilance or watchfulness saved Washington’s Army.
Vigilance and watchfulness were an important part of gathering intelligence. From the Culper Spy Ring on Long Island to General Lafayette’s intelligence circle at Yorktown, many spies had risked their lives to pass along information for the cause. Their vigilance was crucial to the war’s success.
When James Armistead, a slave, infiltrated Lord Cornwallis’s command at Yorktown, he kept watch for the patriots and gave Lafayette important intelligence that led to the end of the war. Armistead’s vigilance made him a hero.
Congress also gave the color blue the virtue of perseverance. They knew that George Washington’s army had shown perseverance. His soldiers had persevered through battlefield losses, extreme cold, extreme heat, illness, retreat, scarcity of food and clothing, and separation from their families. The Continental Army had displayed incredible perseverance when it joined forces with the French army and marched from New York to Virginia to battle the British Redcoats at Yorktown. Included was the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, which was made up of black men and native tribes. They had also fought at the Battle of Rhode Island.
Congress knew that undergirding everything was the final meaning in the color blue—justice. When General Washington crossed the Delaware River and launched a surprise attack against the British outpost at Trenton in 1776, he did so because he believed in the justness of their cause.
“You, at a distance, can form no idea of the perplexity of my situation. No man I believe ever had a greater choice of difficulties & less the means of extricating himself than I have—However under a full persuasion of the justice of our cause, I cannot but think the prospect will brighten, although for wise purposes it is, at present hid under a cloud,” George Washington to his brother, December 18, 1776.
James Armistead also pursued his personal cause of justice after the Battle of Yorktown. With papers from Lafayette proving that he had served in the military as a spy, he was freed from slavery by a Virginia court. Armistead changed his last name to Lafayette.
When Congress released the Great Seal of the United States on June 20, 1782, they knew what the flag’s colors meant. They had witnessed valor, hardness, purity, innocence, vigilance, perseverance and justice. They knew that the heroes of the revolution had demonstrated the virtues that made America’s colors shine.
Truth Red, White & Blue for Today
The value of these virtues and the importance of Americans united as Americans has not changed.
What has changed are perspective and knowledge. Why are school children not taught the virtues behind red, white, and blue? Though the flag has grown to feature 50 stars, how many children are taught that the flag means unity or that identifying as an American is more important than other distinctions?
How many schools are teaching the importance of U.S. citizenship? Many are turning to globalism instead. Fairfax County Public Schools, for example, elevates global citizenship over U.S. citizenship in its core goals for students.
The Great Seal and the flag are reminders of virtues that can unite us in our identity as Americans. Valor, hardness, purity, innocence, vigilance, perseverance, and justice are bulwarks against corruption and tyranny and worthy traits to pass on to each generation. Our nation needs these values and virtues today, now more than ever.