The Grand Old Union

Americans love their Stars and Stripes, and fly it proudly.  But many do not know that it was not the one flying when the 13 Colonies declared Independence on July 4th, 1776.

The first flag that the early United States used as its “national flag” is known by several names, like Continental Colors and Grand Old Union. It’s usually called  the Grand Union, and it was being used by Americans in 1775 when the conflict with Britain began. As you can see it has the 13 stripes we know so well, but instead of stars on a white field, the British Union flag is displayed.

When American colonists first began their struggle for greater liberty, full independence was not yet in the cards. Loyalty to the king was still proclaimed, even while fighting against the oppressive laws passed by British Parliament.  Because of this we also see the Union, or the “King’s Colors,” in the upper left corner. In those days what we now call the Union Jack really represented the King and his authority, and was not really a “national flag” as we think of one today. In fact, the Union flag had been a symbol of defiance to British governmental policies in North America at a time when King George III was not viewed as an antagonist to American freedom.

A diary entry of a British officer in Massachusetts, written May 1st, 1775, may help clarify:

“The Rebels have erected the Standard at Cambridge; they call themselves the King’s Troops and us the Parliaments.”

The “Standard” he mentions was the Union flag.   

The stripes have their own origin. Colonial merchant ships had been using a red and white striped flag long before the War of Independence, and a striped flag was used by members of the Sons of Liberty Society who resisted unfair taxation and played a major role in battling the Stamp Act of 1765.  Originally consisting of nine stripes for the nine American colonies, this flag grew to 13 during the Revolutionary War.

The Grand Union was the first naval ensign used aboard American ships of war.  The stripes were a natural part of the design because of their familiarity to American sailors.