John Kelly's Washington

John Kelly's Washington: Answer Man Peers Behind FBI Building's Flags

Most of the flags at the FBI building were never official, but they do show Old Glory's evolution. Flagmakers took creative liberties in arranging the stars.
Most of the flags at the FBI building were never official, but they do show Old Glory's evolution. Flagmakers took creative liberties in arranging the stars. (By John Kelly -- The Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Sunday, August 23, 2009

On the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building fly 12 American flags. They sure are a great, bright and attractive addition to the massive architecture of the building! But I digress. Some of the flags appear to be current or former official U.S. flags. I am not sure that the others are or were official; for example, one has the stars arranged in a circle, and another has a "76" in the star field. Is there a story as to why these flags were selected and are flown on the FBI building?

-- Brooks Bowen, Potomac

The flags illustrate the evolution of the U.S. flag, from before there was a United States up to the present day.

Not all of the flags were ever "official." Most of them weren't.

The westernmost flag flying in front of FBI HQ is known among vexillologists (flag historians) as the Continental Colors, the flag of the Continental Army. Raised during the siege of Boston in 1775-1776, it featured the 13 familiar red and white stripes, but instead of a blue field -- or canton -- in the upper left, there is a Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom. This was a bit of a problem, since the flag was mistaken by the British as a sign of submission.

On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress passed the Flag Act. It stipulated 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."

You will note that nowhere does the act stipulate the size of the stars or how they are to be arranged. That's why you get such flags as the one the FBI calls on its Web site "the Betsy Ross Flag." Its 13 stars are in a circle.

Ross probably didn't have anything to do with it. "Every historian who's studied it has found no credible evidence that Betsy Ross made the first American flag, much less designed it," said Middleburg's Marc Leepson, author of "Flag: An American Biography."

"America didn't even know the name Betsy Ross until 1870, when her grandson held a press conference at the historical society in Philadelphia and announced that his grandmother made the first flag," Leepson said.

Most experts credit Francis Hopkinson with designing the U.S. flag. (He's misidentified as "Hopkins" on the FBI site.) Hopkinson, a New Jersey lawyer and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, worked for the Treasury. In 1780, he petitioned Congress to be paid for his design. His request was denied, because it was felt that civil servants shouldn't profit from regular responsibilities.


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