The stripes on the flag of the United States

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are identical to the stripes on the British East India Company flag.

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What were the political reasons for the United States deciding to use the design of the stripes of the flag of the British East India Company within design the flag of the United States?

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    I've down voted this question because the it assumes there were reasons behind copying the East India Company flag, a claim that is unsubstantiated with historical evidence. It could simply be that the similar lines of thought resulted in the 13 red stripes in the main field. – Drunk Cynic Oct 8 '18 at 0:16
  • @DrunkCynic, Re "similar lines of thought": or maybe the founders loved candy canes and barber shops, but put a big X in the union because they didn't want people to expect government to give everyone free candy and haircuts. But by Occam's Razor, such _"could be"_s should bear the greater burden of proof. The simplest hypothesis is that the later flag copied the earlier. – agc Oct 8 '18 at 3:41
  • @DrunkCynic - I was of the same opinion, but the article I quoted in my answer provides enough evidence that it's feasible it was, in fact, based on that flag. No proof, but enough circumstantial evidence to put it in the realm of possibility. That said, I do think this would be a better fit on History.SE – Bobson Oct 8 '18 at 22:01
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    I think these historic flag questions are off-topic here as they only ask about the reasons for making the decision at the time. As such, I think they'd be on-topic on the history SE site. – JJ for Transparency and Monica Oct 16 '18 at 14:51
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Sir Charles Fawcett, a British historian writing in 1937, published an article (which can be found here, although there's probably a more authoritative source) considering this possibility. His conclusion was that it was likely that the flag was deliberately chosen, but while there is evidence that there were more records about it, those records no longer exist and so it can't be confirmed.

Some excerpts (emphasis mine, and some spacing added for readability):

The thirteen stripes of the National Flag are thus undeniably derived from the Grand Union Flag. Their origin in the latter is more controversial, but the position is at any rate clearer if that flag was exactly the same as the East India Company's ordinary flag between 1707 and 1801. The adoption of an English flag with the Union Jack in its canton gives rise to no difficulty. Though hostilities began in 1775, it is indisputable that Washington and other leaders of the revolt were still in hopes of a reconciliation with the Mother-country, and the war was regarded as one against the unlawful acts of the King's Ministry rather than one involving disloyalty to the King. Otherwise it is absurd to suppose that a flag with the Union Jack on it would ever have been adopted.(36)


[The East India Company's] striped flag had been flying for nearly two centuries, and it would at any rate be familiar to Englishmen. It seems probable that it was also well known to American seamen, who made voyages to Dutch and other European ports for various purposes, including the large traffic in smuggling tea and other heavily taxed goods into America(63). Thus Esek Hopkins (1718-1802), who was commissioned in December 1775 as Commander-in-Chief of the new navy of the thirteen States and on whose flagship the Grand Union Flag was first hoisted would almost certainly be acquainted with it, for not only had he been one of the leading colonial seamen, but also a privateer captain, who had made brilliant and successful ventures during the Seven Years' War (1756-63).

The distinguished American leader, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), was another who must have known of it. He came to London as a young man to finish his education as a printer (December 1724 to July 1726), and made two other long stays in England from 1757 to 1762 and from 1764 to 1774. During the latter period he acted as London agent for the opposition to the King's Government in four of the American colonies. In 1761 he made a trip to Holland and during his third period of residence he visited France and Germany. He thus had opportunities of seeing the Company's flag;(64) and even if he did not himself see it, it did not need the omniscience of Macaulay's schoolboy for him and hundreds of other English settlers in America to know of it.

He would naturally be interested in the East India Company, for (in addition to its prominence as a mercantile body) it was concerned in the agitation that was going on in the American colonies. Thus in a letter of 5 January 1773 Franklin [writes a letter against taxing tea, which is the Company's position as well].

Franklin, therefore, far from having reason to dislike the Company, could properly regard it almost as an ally. Another thing that might dispose him to favour its flag was that it symbolized independence, in the sense that the Company's administration in India was not then directly controlled by the King's ministers, for it was not till 1784 that the well-known "Board of Control" was established. Franklin was Chairman of the "Committee of Conference", consisting of himself and two others, which was appointed by the second continental congress on 15 June 1775 to confer with General Washington on the organization of the land forces.(68) He is likely, therefore, to have had an influential voice in settling their flag. He is also said to have designed the Rattlesnake flag of South Carolina.(69)

All that said, Sir Fawcett continues:

In the absence of due substantiation for the alleged speech of Franklin in its favour, this is as high as I can reasonably put the case for the view that the Company's flag was deliberately copied by the designers of the Grand Union Flag in 1775.

In the end, he concludes:

The present tendency in the United States is to treat the origin of the Grand Union Flag as a mystery, which is unlikely to be solved(76). ... In any case I think my research about it has clarified some points that were previously obscure, or have been the subject of erroneous statements; and I trust the publication of this article may result in further light being thrown on the subject by others more competent than I am to discuss points about flags.

It's worth considering the source here - a British historian could easily have a bias towards finding that the nascent US borrowed much from the British - but the article seems well written and referenced to my inexpert eye. Thus:


There is no remaining documented evidence as to why, but it's very feasible that Ben Franklin could have pushed for or chosen the East India Company's flag as the Grand Union Flag to be a convenient symbol of independence from the British crown. The stripes on the first official US flag would then have been a carry-over from the Grand Union Flag, but not explicitly tied to the East India Company.

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    Fawcett's research was extensive, but by his own admission not utterly exhaustive, and he therefore sensibly did not consider himself the last word on the topic: "...I trust the publication of this article may result in further light being thrown on the subject by others more competent than I am to discuss points about flags." – agc Oct 13 '18 at 20:33
  • @agc - Yeah, that's the impression I gathered from reading it and was trying to convey, but I added that concluding line in to help make the point. – Bobson Oct 15 '18 at 21:31
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    Sorry to belabor this, but "There is no remaining documented evidence as to why..." still implies an exhaustive search... (i.e. evidence might be found in an old shoebox tomorrow, etc.) – agc Oct 15 '18 at 23:55
  • The stripes on the U.S. national flag are explicitly tied to the stripes on the EIC flag, which pre-dates the U.S. flag. Three political reasons that can fathom why the U.S. decided to use stripes within the design of the EIC flag on their U.S. national flag are 1) the stripes on the U.S. flag are original; the identical stripes on the EIC flag which pre-date the stripes on the U.S. flag is purely coincidental; 2) a (undisclosed) merger or acquisition occurred between an entity and the U.S.; where the U.S. adopted the acquiring entity's flag; 3) convenience of the day; carried on today. – guest271314 Oct 16 '18 at 5:08
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    @guest271314 - That's an implicit relationship. "This item is like this other item" is an observation (no matter how similar), not an explanation. But arguing with you is useless, because you believe what you believe and just keep repeating the same points rather than actually engaging with what other people are saying. I've voted to close the question as "not in good faith," since you clearly aren't actually interested in what is known and what isn't, just in pushing your own viewpoint. – Bobson Oct 16 '18 at 14:15

The obvious answer is the General George Washington needed a flag to differentiate his forces from the English forces. It is speculated by historians that the flag was simply created by sewing white stripes on an English Ensign. The design was simply expedient and similarity to the East India Company is circumstantial.

What is difficult to understand this many years removed from the events is the state of the world at the time. The idea of a federal central government had not been realized at the time or was so new that it was not at the top of everyone's mind include the General. What I mean is every colony has its own flag which was more important to the average man. With so many symbols, picking something to represent the union was almost an after thought.

The evidence of course is not compelling, but we can speculate by the fact that the so called "Grand Union Flag" (So called because it was named that many decades later, it may have been called "The Continental Color" by contemporaries) was used to represent both land and sea forces. A practice that was not traditional at the time (There was a country flag, an ensign for ships, a battle flag, a regimental flag, etc.). Actually there is an analog in modern times. While the flag of the country is the same as that flown on military bases, on ships and used on some military uniforms, there is a flag of sorts on military air forces. For example, the US has a circled star flanked by three strips on each side. Any way, the continental congress used the flag and then quickly (for the day) discarded it and designed a more permanent design (so that is from around the end of 1775 to June 14 1777).

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  • Not all countries use their national flags on ships, even today. In the case of the UK, the national flag began as a jack (which is why it's often called the Union Jack), in which role it continues. The Royal Navy's ensign is the white ensign; its ships do not fly the jack when under way. The identifying symbol used by aircraft is called a roundel. – phoog Oct 8 '18 at 18:30
  • @phoog, thank you for the roundel. My point was that back then, it was more common to fly different flags for different purposes, all the flags represented the same country but were different. Example, the confederate stars and bars was a battle flag and not the national flag. – Frank Cedeno Oct 8 '18 at 18:42
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    This is a post factum explanation that blames practicalities. There was no need to use stripes, or to put them on horizontally or use the same number of them. There must have been some reason this pattern was chosen. When the Union Flag was modified to accommodate the accession of Ireland to the Union in 1801, it was said that it was an accident of vexillology that the Irish stripes were narrower than the Scottish ones (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fimbriation). They must have realized this at the time so it was their choice to do it this way with this 'unfortunate' consequence. – David Robinson Oct 8 '18 at 19:44
  • @DavidRobinson, it is true that all I have is speculation, it just seems compelling that it may have something as simple as "I need a flag in the next 30 minutes" and nothing thought out since the eye witnesses at the time believed someone just took an English ensign and sewed some random white stripes to it – Frank Cedeno Oct 9 '18 at 13:02

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