A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the symbolism of the colors in the U.S. flag?

February 8, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

Can you please tell me what the meaning of each color is in the US flag? Some flags use white for fidelity, blue for valor, red for ? I am tutoring a Mexican lady so she can pass the citizenship test, and we've been told this is a question that could arise. I'm 55 years old, and as far as I can remember, we were NOT taught the meanings of the colors! Please help me out if you can! I need this information muy pronto!

SDStaff Songbird replies:

Dorothy, if that question is on the test, it's a trick question. Because the colors on the flag don't stand for anything.

Here's the first Flag Act passed by the Continental Congress June 14, 1777: "Resolved, that the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation."

That's it. Nothing more.

But those same colors do stand for something on the Great Seal of the United States.

Here's an excerpt from "Our Flag" published in 1989 by the House of Representatives: "In heraldic devices, such as seals, each element has a specific meaning. Even colors have specific meanings. The colors red, white and blue did not have meanings for the Stars and Stripes when it was adopted in 1777. However, the colors in the Great Seal (adopted in 1782) did have specific meanings. Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, reporting to Congress on the Seal, stated: 'The colors of the pales (the vertical stripes) are those used in the flag of the United State of America; White signifies purity and innocence; Red, hardiness and valor; and Blue, the color of the Chief (the broad band above the stripes) signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice.' "

Interesting sidenotes:

  • The Flag Act of 1818, signed by President Monroe, provided for 13 stripes and one star for each state, to be added to the flag on the 4th of July following the admission of each new state.
  • President Taft's executive order June 24, 1912, established proportions of the flag and provided for arrangement of the stars in six horizontal rows of eight each, a single point of each star to be upward. Flags dating before this time sometimes show unusual arrangements of the stars and odd proportions.
  • From another book about the flag published in 1977 by the House of Representatives  —  "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."

You might also tell the nice lady you're tutoring that the person who designed the first flag was not Betsy Ross, as the cherished American legend goes. According to most historians, the designer of our first "Continental Colors" (the first U.S. flag with a union of stars rather than a design containing the pre-1801 Union Jack) was more than likely Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey, signer of the Declaration of Independence, member of the Continental Navy Board and later member of the House of Representatives.

Best of luck to your student! With a tutor like you, who knows where to go for the Straight Dope, she can't help but pass the test with flying colors!

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