July 4th. Independence Day. For many, the birthday of our nation inspires visions of backyard barbecues, swimming pools, and fireworks displays. The Fourth also provides an opportunity for us, as Americans, to reflect upon the contributions and sacrifices so many brave men and women have made throughout the history of our nation – contributions and sacrifices that give us the opportunity to enjoy the freedom to revel during this celebratory day. Inherent to this sentiment is the concept of patriotism and one of its most iconic symbols, the American Flag.
I recently sat down with Richard (Dick) Middleton of Eden Prairie, to discuss both of these topics in depth. Dick was born and raised in Kansas City and earned Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees from Kansas State University in Computer Science and Statistics. Because of his education in the burgeoning field of computers, Dick was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Army and selected to be an instructor at the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY shortly after graduation.
For Dick, the concept of patriotism is not something that is reserved for national holidays or military ceremonies, rather, it has remained one of the overarching principles that have guided his life since the time he stepped on the West Point campus. Dick recalled setting foot on the West Point campus as a moving experience, noting the “caliber of men and women at [West Point] is very special” and that he found himself routinely inspired by the commitment of the people around him who were “willing to put themselves in harm’s way for their country.” Similarly, Dick found himself “overwhelmed by the traditions, the calls to excellence, and patriotism” of those around him and found that it was all but impossible not to “be absorbed into the culture.”
As a committed patriot with an appreciation for history and desire to share his passion with others, Dick approached his father-in-law, Admiral James E. Mantel, in 2009 to give a presentation on the history of the evolution of the flag of the United States at the University of Northwestern (where Dick was working as a professor at the time). For Dick, the speech resonated with his sense of patriotism and based on the overwhelmingly positive reviews, he had envisioned asking Admiral Mantel to return in subsequent years. Sadly, Admiral Mantel passed away a few years after speaking at the University. Five years later, a combination of desire and encouragement from his wife, Cherie, led Dick to do his own extensive research on the flag and he began presenting on the flag and other topics relating to U.S. history throughout Minnesota.
To put it mildly, Dick’s depth of knowledge of the history of the U.S. flag was astounding. As he walked me through the evolution and history of our nation’s banner, I found myself so engaged with the material, that I occasionally stopped taking notes just to sit and listen. It goes without saying that most people are familiar with the red, white, and blue; 50 stars; and 13 stripes that make up our nation’s flag. Many are also aware that the 50 stars on the flag represent the 50 states of the Union and that the 13 stripes represent the 13 original colonies. Still, fewer are aware of the symbolism of the red, white, and blue colors on the flag – hardiness and valor, purity and innocence, perseverance and justice, respectively.
With this in mind, how many iterations of the flag do you think our great nation has had over the years (hint: we have added quite a few states since 1776)?
The answer is 27. Pretty shocking, right? And those 27 official iterations of the flag do not include the myriad of variations among the “official” designs. The variations among early flags primarily occurred as a function of the technology of the time. Dick noted that prior to the invention of machinery that was able to mass produce flags, each flag was handmade by individual craftspeople that lacked access to Google or Pinterest to see how their creations compared to the work of others. Moreover, it wasn’t until the early 1900’s, during the administration of President William Howard Taft, that strict laws and regulations were implemented to govern the dimensions and design of the flag.
It is safe to say that during the time leading up to and during the Revolutionary War, there were a lot of early colonialists that were not too happy with their British counterparts. But did you know that this displeasure was represented in the flags of the period? Take the British Ensign Flag, also known as the Bunker Hill Flag, for example. One of the earliest flags from the Revolution, the British Ensign Flag was adapted from flags flown on British naval ships, but with some slight modification. Dick pointed out that one of the most salient and interesting features of this flag is the green tree located in the upper corner, known as the “Freedom Tree.” Legend has it that on one occasion, Americans held a protest under a tree to dispute “taxation without representation.” In response, the British authorities cut the tree down. Not to be outdone, the Colonials added the Freedom Tree to the British Ensign Flag as an additional form of protest, which was viewed by the British as defacement of a national symbol.
The Bunker Hill Flag was not the only Revolutionary War Era version designed with the British in mind. The first Jack flag, which features a rattlesnake draped across a field 13 red and white stripes with the slogan, “Don’t Tread on Me,” was inspired by Benjamin Franklin. Dick reported that this flag came into being in 1751 after Benjamin Franklin published an article advocating that Colonials should ship crates of rattlesnakes back to England so that they might find their way into the gardens of the British.
Not all of our flags were designed with a protest in mind. The design of each flag was a reflection of what was going on in the nation at the time. One of the better-known flags from our history is the one that was designed by Betsy Ross (and Francis Hopkins). This flag features 13 red and white stripes along with 13 white, five-pointed stars in a field of blue. Interestingly, Dick noted that the stars on the Betsy Ross Flag were chosen for both symbolism and function. The shape of a star was chosen to represent “man’s desire for greatness” and was arranged in a circle to represent unity. Additionally, however, the five-pointed star was chosen over other star shapes because it was believed that a five-pointed star could be seen over greater distances.
As Dick explained these and many other historical details throughout the interview, it was plain to see that, for him, giving his presentation on the flag is much more than a collection of intriguing facts, but is intertwined with his deep seeded sentiments about patriotism and the pride he feels for his country. At the conclusion of our interview, he noted that his sense of patriotism “transcends” the presentation itself and he hopes that this spirit will inspire the same feelings in others.