What Do the Stars & the Stripes Mean?

The Statue of Liberty and the Stars and Stripes welcomes many Americans returning home.

John Hartvigsen

As a lifelong student of flag studies formally known as vexillology, it has been exciting to tell the stories of flags and specially to share the story of the United States flag.  Scholars argue about some details of the flag’s history, but the real challenge has been to explain what the flag means and why it is important.  Flags are emotion charged emblems, and Americans have experiences involving the flag that are hard to put into words. Sir Walter Scot expressed feelings of patriotism well is his narrative poem, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” which reads in the 6th Canto:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned
As home his footsteps he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand!

As a serviceman assigned abroad, I know the feeling of seeing Old Glory flying on my return to American soil.  Of course, other national flags could have the same effect for their countrymen.

Yet, American’s have a special tie to the U.S. flag that other countries see as pronounced.  Flags are flown in the U.S. from homes, stores, business, organization in addition to display by the government and military.  The flag of the United States is the great symbol of our unity as a people representing our common history, culture, values and aspirations.  However, what does its pattern mean and what do its colors symbolize?

On the British Union Jack flown during the American Revolution, red & white symbolized England’s Cross of St. George while blue & white came from Scotland’s Cross of St. Andrew. Together, the represented the UNION of the two nations as the Kingdom of Great Britain.

While there are many symbolic things about the U.S. flag, let’s look at just three: (1) The Colors Red, White & Blue; (2) The Thirteen Red & White Stripes and (3) Fifty Stars in a Blue Canton.

  1. We inherited our national colors of red, white & blue from Great Britain, the colonies Mother Country. Those three colors are displayed of the Union Jack or Union Flag of Great Britain, and the colors and the names of the flag meant the UNION of England and Scotland.  That flag, perhaps, inspired the 13 British American Colonies to unite in settling their grievances with the Mother Country.  While they never recorded what the colors meant to them, the flag and the colors symbolized UNION to 18th Century Americans.

    Thirteen red & white stripes symbolized the thirteen British North American Colonies that UNITED to create the UNITED States of America.

  2. We usually describe the thirteen stripes simply as representing the original thirteen states, and while this is true—there is a deeper meaning. The stripes symbolized the UNION of thirteen British American Colonies that UNITED to create the UNITED States of America.  The Stripes made up the field of some flags but were often displayed as a UNION device in the canton corner of flags.

Thirteen original states have grown into fifty as symbolized on the current U.S. flag.  Will we get a 51st star for the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico?

  1. Thirteen white stars in a blue field replace the British Union Jack when the UNITED State of America declared independence, and new stars have been added as the American UNION has grown to 50 states. We now name of the starry constellation as the flag’s UNION.


In all three flag symbols, the same idea appears again and again, and I have quite obviously shown a word repeatedly in all capitol letters.      The symbols on the flag of the UNITED States of America symbolize our UNION.  The Stars and Stripes are the great symbol of our shared history, values and aspirations as a people.  We have united in war and peace to overcome difficulty and strife.  Today we need that UNITED effort to fully embrace our values of securing “liberty and justice for all.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *