Glorious History (or Myths) Behind FBI's U.S. Flags

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.

Another old-style flag in front of the building features 13 six-pointed stars and the number "76" in the canton. The agency calls it the "Bennington Flag" and says it was flown by the Vermont militia during a battle on Aug. 16, 1777. Most experts discount this, maintaining that the Bennington Flag was made in the 1820s, possibly for the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The rest of the flags have various numbers of stars, added when new states joined the Union. There's a 34-star flag from when Abraham Lincoln was president and a 48-star flag of the sort Marines raised on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima.

Why the display at the FBI building? Because officials wanted to illustrate the development of the flag and display it on a major parade route -- Pennsylvania Avenue.

Answer Man's favorite flag has 20 stars arranged to form a single big star. It was designed by U.S. Navy Capt. Samuel Chester Reid at the request of New York congressman Peter Wendover. It was Reid and Wendover who came up with the idea to add a new star for every new state, a practice adopted in the third Flag Act, passed in 1818. Reid designed several flags, and while his ideas might have made flagmakers happy, they weren't very practical. He recommended that government vessels fly a different flag from merchant ships and that Americans raise yet another flag on "gala days."

Of all his inventions, Reid was fondest of his star-of-stars design, what is now called the "Grand Luminary." He thought it nicely embodied "E Pluribus Unum": Out of many, one -- new stars forming a new constellation.

Answer Man had his own question as he stood in front of the FBI building: What did the "J." in "J. Edgar Hoover" stand for? Turns out it was "John." Why ever would anyone abbreviate that?

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