What Do Our Colors Really Mean?

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You know our nation’s colors. But do you know what they mean?

“That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white: that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation,” states the record from June 14, 1777, the day the Continental Congress adopted our flag.

That’s it. No explanation of the colors. And no recognition of flag-maker Betsy Ross, either.

The flag resolution was sandwiched like cheese into the congress’s heartier bread and butter business that day. They spent more time slicing pressing problems, such as sneaking salt supplies to patriots into British-controlled New York.

Most urgently they replaced a Navy captain of “doubtful character” with upstart John Paul Jones. They also gave Benedict Arnold a militia command that day. The myopic congress could only focus on what was in front of them—missing the far-sited triumph of creating America’s most recognized symbol. Isn’t that the way life often is? We focus on the immediate, while failing to see the big picture of our actions.

Five years later the Continental Congress explained the colors. After receiving an oral report complete with an eagle painting—an 18th Century version of a “PowerPoint” presentation—they adopted the nation’s Great Seal. They explained the real meaning of red, white and blue—finally.

“White signifies purity and innocence. Red, hardiness and valor and Blue…signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice.”

What took them so long? The reason is simple. Congress couldn’t define the colors in 1777 because they didn’t know what they truly meant. They were stitching a revolution from civil war chaos. But by 1782 they understood John Paul Jones’s red stripe of valor when he famously yelled from his sinking ship “Surrender? I have not yet begun to fight!” His ship sank, but he won the battle and captured the British vessel.

They knew that George Washington told his army at Long Island in 1776 that they weren’t fighting for themselves but for liberty and the innocent “unborn millions” to come. Washington understood the meaning of white—purity and innocence—the motive behind the cause of liberty.

They saw justice after Benedict Arnold’s treason. He escaped, but the valuable West Point was saved. For eight years patriots united with true blue vigilance. By living loudly for liberty, they persevered and won.

While some think patriotism is passé, such as a California school administrator who sent home five students for wearing U.S. flag T-shirts on Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo, others are less myopic. Such far-sighted folks see past flag flaps. To them, any day is great for flying the flag.

Just ask Debbie Lee, who became the first Gold Star mother to visit the combat zone where her son died. Her son Marc Alan Lee became the first Navy Seal to die in Iraq in 2006 after single-handedly standing in the direct line of fire and shooting more than 100 rounds. Today Debbie is an outspoken supporter of the military. She runs the non-profit, America’s Mighty Warriors, americasmightywarriors.org.

“Real courage is facing the enemy and being willing to pay the ultimate price with your life because you value others’ lives more than your own,” Lee explains. While Marc embodied valor’s red stripe, Lee’s stamina or hardiness continues the red thread.

When Lt. Daniel Nichols joined thousands of reservists first called to Iraq in 2003, he observed that bravery is “struggling forward against all odds for the sake of a few intangible values. Values such as liberty and human dignity, values without which life on earth would bear no worth at all.” The founders had Nichols’ motive in mind for those white stars and stripes.

At a family reunion in Branson, Missouri, eighty-year-old William Cook, author of a The Chase: Success, Motivation and the Scriptures (released 2012), told of his mother’s vigilance over her seven children, including the four at war. During World War II, Jamie Cook posted a service flag on the front door of her two-bedroom home in Little Rock, Arkansas. The four stars represented her four sons serving in the military. She prayed vigilantly for them and rejoiced when each returned home. William Cook purposefully wore a red, white and blue shirt at the reunion to remember his brothers’ service and his mother’s perseverance.

Our colors haven’t lost their meaning. They have stood the test of time. That is why our flag continues to be the most recognizable symbol of the United States.

Presidential historian Jane Hampton Cook, janecook.com, is co-author of Stories of Faith and Courage from the War in Iraq and Afghanistan and author of Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War. Her new book on the War of 1812 and John Quincy and Louisa Adams, American Phoenix, will be published in May 2013. (janecook.com)

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