June 14 is Flag Day. On that day in 1777, the Second Continental Congress resolved “that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” We now honor the “Stars and Stripes” that contains fifty stars and thirteen stripes. But, for a brief quarter of a century, America’s flag contained a different number of stars and a different number of stripes.
In December 1793 the third U.S. Congress met. The first order of business was to change the American flag. Senator Stephen Row Bradley of Vermont proposed that two additional stars and stripes be added to the flag to commemorate the statehood of Vermont and Kentucky in 1791 and 1792. The proposal met with no opposition in the Senate, but some resistance surfaced in the House of Representatives. Such a change would encourage further alterations when additional states entered the Union. Such continuous alterations would be expensive. Furthermore, the U.S. flag, it was suggested, should be permanent. After the House approved the change by a vote of 50 to 42, President George Washington signed the act on January 13, 1794, and the new design officially went into effect on May 1, 1795.
In 1818, Congress considered changing the “Bradley flag.” Five additional stars were added to represent the new states of Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana and Mississippi. Without wanting to increase the size of the flag or reduce the width of each stripe, it was agreed to return to the original thirteen stripes. Additional stars have been added to the flag when new states joined the Union, but thirteen stripes (seven red and six white) have remained a constant.
Although in existence for fewer than twenty-five years, the “Bradley flag” retains a special place in America’s history. It was the flag during the War of 1812. It was the flag that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor in 1814 when Francis Scott Key wrote a poem on September 14, 1814, describing the 25-hour British bombardment that lasted throughout the perilous night. The “Bradley flag” was, indeed, the original “Star-Spangled Banner.” The original flag that flew so valiantly over Fort McHenry in 1814 is now on display in the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., and is viewed by thousands of people each year.