Colors of the Flag: Is it the law or is it tradition?

David Aker
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Tradition Gives the Colors of Our Flag Meaning

  • At this patriotic time of the year, the colors
    red, white and blue are found in abundance in all types of settings, products,
    events, sales and other communications.
    Americans everywhere identify with red, white and blue.  This is undoubtedly due to the colors of the
    U.S.  Flag – Old Glory, the Star Spangled
    Banner, The National Colors, The National Standard, Tthe “Colors”, etc. 
  • Since all Americans identify closely with the
    colors of the flag, have you ever wondered what those colors mean?  What significance is bestowed upon the colors
    of our Flag?
  • Most Americans will be surprised to learn that
    the colors of our Flag technically have no official meaning.  The colors have meaning based only on
    inference, heraldry and tradition.
  • In this context (heraldry and tradition)
    the colors of the U.S.  Flag imply the
    following: red for hardiness
    and courage, white for purity
    and innocence, and blue for
    vigilance, perseverance and justice.

  • The technical and legal explanation of this fact
    is provided below.
The Law

  • The first “official” Flag was adopted by an Act
    of Congress on June 14, 1777.
  •  Congress resolved that “the Flag of the United
    States be 13 stripes alternate red and white”, “the Union be 13 stars white in
    a blue field representing a new constellation”
  • Congress, however, left no record (official or
    unofficial) as to why the colors red, white and blue were chosen.
  •  However, in 1782 Congress adopted the “Great
    Seal of the United States” and chose the same colors (red, white and blue) for
    the Seal.  In that resolution, Congress
    indicated that (1) red is for hardiness and courage, (2) white is for purity
    and innocence, and (3) blue is for vigilance, perseverance and justice.
  •  The meaning designated for each color of the
    Great Seal, therefore, was (and is)  consistent with heraldry.
  • The next opportunity for officially determining
    the meaning of the Flags colors occurred in 1923.  At that time the National Flag Conference was
    convened by the Daughters of the American Revolution, the American Legion and sixty
    other patriotic organizations.  This
    Conference drafted what is known today as the “Flag Code”.  In 1942, the Flag Code was adopted by
    Congress as part of Title 36 of the United States Code.  But, the colors of the Flag were still not
  •  In 1998, Public Law 105-225 was signed.  This included the transfer of many provisions
    of Title 36 to Title 4.  Title 36 focuses
    on patriotic and national observances, ceremonies, and organizations as well as
    honoring the flag.[1]  Title 4 (known as the Flag Code) provides  the official description of the Flag.  This description does not explain the meaning
    of the colors.  Title 4 also focuses on
    proper usage of the flag.
Additional Notes

  • Military and civil branches of government have
    their own regulations related to the Flag.[2]  Those regulations are consistent with Title
    4.  It is interesting to note that in the
    Military, our Flag is often referred to as “The Colors”.  
  •  “No disrespect should be shown to the flag of
    the United States of America” (USC Title 4, Chapter 1, § 8).    Displaying a dirty, worn, torn or frayed flag
    is considered a sign of disrespect (even if unintentional).  Therefore, Flags International®
    recommends flying a bright, fresh flag at this patriotic time of year.
  • Flags International® provides pro
    bono presentations on the genealogy of the American Flag to schools, civic
    groups and clubs.

THE FLAG! The United States Flag Code, Annotated and Indexed, Whitney Smith,
THE FLAG! The United States Flag Code, Annotated and Indexed, Whitney Smith,