"Stars and Stripes" or "Stripes and Stars"

By James R. Heintze. All rights reserved.

At the time of the Revolution there was no one single American flag in use. Regiments used various flags of different colors and arrangements of symbols to inspire the men. According to information provided by the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia, "a new American naval flag, with 13 white stars in a blue field and 13 red and white stripes was completed by May 1777," and the first standard, sewn by Betsy Ross was adopted by Congress on June 14, 1777, the day we now celebrate as Flag Day.

Everyone is familiar with the phrase "stars and stripes," a metaphor for the American flag, etched in our minds in recent times in large part to John Philip's Sousa's march, "Stars and Stripes Forever," played at numerous Fourth of July celebrations each year. When referring to the American flag in the nineteenth century, however, both phrases "Stars and Stripes" and "Stripes and Stars" were in common usage. Both phrases described the American standard as it proudly waved from the masts of America's ships, buildings, and in parades.

"Stripes and Stars"

Following is a typical example as referring to a ship's star-spangled banner:
The L'Insurgent French frigate, lately captured in the West-Indies by Captain Truxton, was at New-York in the summer of '96, and then mounted 44 guns--she is a larger vessel than the Ambuscade, and when fitted out, and manned by the brave defenders of the Stripes and Stars, will become an excellent auxillary to the navy of America. [Newport Mercury, 2 April 1799, 3]
"Stripes and Stars" was also commonly used in patriotic poetry and songs. For example this poem written during the War of 1812 and to be sung to the tune "Yankee Doodle" included this final stanza:
Columbia, Hail! to weep and wail
Thy lot, shall never be, Sir,
Thy Stripes and Stars, our Jolly Tars
Shall keep, from danger, free, Sir.
Yankee Doodle, &c
[New Jersey Journal,29 December 1812, 4.]
One of the earliest uses of the phrase on the Fourth of July appeared in the opening sentences in the newspaper The Centinel of Freedom that described the celebration in Springfield, New Jersey:
At sunrise the day was ushered in by the display of the American stripes and stars--the ringing of the parish bell--and the discharge of ordnance. "Celebration of the 4th of July at Springfield," [The Centinel of Freedom, 16 July 1816, 3.]

In 1828 in preparation for the Fourth of July celebration in Baltimore, several women were making an American flag to be flown on a miniature 40-foot ship to be pulled in the city parade. A few days before the event, the following description of the presentation of the flag appeared in a local newspaper:
On Friday evening last [the women] presented to Captain Timothy Gardner, the venerable commander of the Union, a superb set of silk colours to be worn by this vessel. Any comment on the amiable feelings which prompted them to the gift, or on the grateful emotions elicited in this old Seventy-Sixer's breast by it, would be needless. Suffice it to express a fervent hope, that those fair, who have thus with their own hands, so beautifully united the Stripes and Stars, which form the rallying standard, dear to every American breast, may in the moment of need, find every manly heart as truly united in their defence. [Baltimore Patriot, 1 July 1828, 2.]
Sometimes the phrase was used in Fourth of July toasts as in this example offered at a celebration held at the hotel in Lawrenceville, Virginia, on July 4, 1832:
By Algemon S. Claiborne. The Stripes and Stars of the American Banner: May it ever declare to the world the tale of our Union, Independence, one and inseparable. ["Brunswick Celebration," Richmond Enquirer, 20 July 1832, 1-2.]

In 1834 a pavilion was constructed on the Common in Boston to be used on the Fourth of July by 2000 Whigs who had gathered there. The American flag was hoisted on the structure and a description was noted in a newspaper:
The proud ensign of America, the flag with the stripes and stars, was displayed in every part of the building, and pennants were floating in great profusion over the heads of the assembled multitude. [Baltimore Patriot, 11 July 1834, 2.]

On July 4, 1838, Edward Wells used the phrase in an oration he gave in Sing Sing, New York:
Shall those stripes and stars, which now wave triumphantly in every breeze, and which are honored in every land as the representative of a free people, ever be trampled beneath the feet of a foreign foe, or torn by the violence of civil strife? [Hudson River Chronicle, 17 July 1838, 2.]

In 1846 a poem written by W.G. Simms about the War with Mexico was intended for presentation on the Fourth of July as indicated below included this stanza:
"Palos-Alto and Resaca--By W.G. Simms.
A New Song for the 4th of July, 1846"

For Taylor--"Rough and Ready,"
True son of truest sires:--
For May, who, swift and steady,
Trod down La Vega's fires;
Maintain'd in pride the stripes and stars,
The dead, who won immortel [sic] life,
And they who live for other wars:
For these, who with their victory,
New wreaths to grace our laurel bring--
A health that drains the goblet dry,
A cheer that make the welkin ring! [Pittsfield Sun, 25 June 1846, 1.]

"Stripes and Stars" continued to be used during the Civil War

"Stars and Stripes"

Referring to the American flag as the "Stars and Stripes" has an illustrious history, with citations in poetry, music, descriptions of parades, and speeches. At a Fourth of July celebrations in Philadelphia in 1820, a local newspaper described the event:
The anniversary of American Independence was celebrated in this city and its vicinity with the spirit, regularity and decorum by which our citizens are generally distinguished. Early in the morning the customary salutes were fired; the American flag was displayed at the navy yard, the custom house, and other public places; the stars and stripes waved from the masts of the different vessels in our harbor. ["At Philadelphia," City of Washington Gazette, 8 July 1820, 3.]

In 1824, an "Ode for the Fourth of July, Written by Mr. J.B. Moore," to the tune "Ye Mariners," included this stanza:
Victorious from the trial,
Our valiant Fathers rose;
And while above the stars shall shine,
Firm will we meet our foes!
Let the Briton, or the Gaul invade,
The North its legions pour--
They shall see, how the free
Will repel them on the shore--
While our stars and stripes on high shall wave,
"And our Yankee thunders roar!" [New-Hampshire Patriot & State Gazette, 12 July 1824, 4.]

An Ode written for a celebration on July 5 "by a young lady" and sung at a "Soiree at East Bradford," Massachusetts, had this final stanza:
Quick may oppression's work be done,
Where stars and stripes so proudly wave;
And when we next shall hail this sun,
May the loud echo rench the slave [Haverhill Gazette, 17 July 1841, 2.]

One of the earliest pieces of music to use the phrase was The Stars & Stripes Forever: Brilliant Variations on the Star Spangled Banner by Charles Grobe and published in 1852. Grobe's piece predates John Philip Sousa's popular march of the same title by forty years!

This page last updated April 2011

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