A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How will stars be arranged on the flag if the U.S. ever has 51 states?

October 19, 1990

Dear Cecil:

While watching a recent World War II documentary, I noticed the U.S. flag with 48 stars in a 6x8 matrix. Of course now we have 50 stars, with alternating rows of five and six. This raises several questions. When we add a state, who makes the decision on how the stars will be arranged? Is there a Senate subcommittee on star arrangement? Or is it done by some bureaucratic pencil pusher — another example of the American public having no say in matters of national importance? Finally, if the District of Columbia becomes a state, how the heck would one arrange the stars? Isn't this the real reason D.C. will never become a state?

Cecil replies:

Could be — I always thought that fear-of-Jesse-Jackson-as-U.S.- senator stuff was a smokescreen. Fortunately, I have solved the problem. But first some facts.

The general appearance of the flag — 13 stripes, a star for each state, etc. — was set by Congress in 1818. The star arrangement, however, is up to the President. The deliberations within the Eisenhower administration on this burning issue prior to the admission of Alaska and Hawaii were cloaked in secrecy. So we don't know if Ike convened a late-night cabinet meeting, consulted experts in the science of tesselation (mosaic pattern arrangement), or just worked it out himself with David's blocks. No matter — in the end, it was a completely arbitrary exercise of presidential power.

Undemocratic? Sure, but if you'd seen the cockeyed suggestions sent in by the public, you'd say it was just as well. Stars in star patterns, stars spelling out U.S.A. — one shudders. In fact, until relatively recent times, half-arsed star arrangement has been something of a national curse. At the Battle of Guilford Court House in North Carolina in 1781, American troops carried a banner with 13 stars in a dweebish arrangement of two rows of four, one row of three, and the remaining two stars shoehorned in one above the other on the far right. Worse, the flag had alternating red-and-blue stripes, with blue eight-pointed stars arranged on a white field. Not surprisingly, the troops obliged to fight under this pathetic rag got massacred. I'd have been too embarrassed even to show up.

Things did not improve as time went on. The 31-star flag that Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo harbor with in 1853 had five vertical columns of five plus one dippy- looking column of six crammed in on the extreme left. Even stranger was the 33-star flag that flew over Fort Sumter at the start of the Civil War in 1861 (actually there were 34 states at the time — they weren't big on details then). It had an indescribable mess of stars that can only be attributed to hallucinogenic molds in the hardtack.

Luckily, today we've got people like me to keep things on a professional basis. A 51-star flag? No prob. When President Quayle calls in 1997, I'll tell him to make it six rows with alternating rows of nine and eight. For 52 stars try eight rows, alternating six and seven, and for 53 seven rows, alternating eight and seven. That takes care of D.C. and Puerto Rico and leaves us a spare for emergencies. Semper paratus, that's me.

Vexed

Dear Cecil:

By the way, Cecil, the expert to consult on flag design wouldn't be a tesselationist but a vexillologist — a flag scientist.

Cecil replies:

Peter, haven't you ever heard of getting the right guy for the right job? If we wanted to exchange idle gossip about flags, or discuss flag lore, or tell flag jokes, a vexillologist would be fine. When it comes to star arrangement, however, you want an expert in two-dimensional patterns — a tesselationist.

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