Standing at attention during the playing of The Star Spangled Banner, saluting the national ensign, and reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag” are all acts performed occasionally by most Americans and regularly by the men and women who wear the uniforms of the armed services. These acts have meaning because of the flag’s symbolic significance. The stars and stripes represent the nation’s independence, the sacrifices that established and have maintained our freedom, and our national values embodied in the Declaration of Independence. This is why the displaying of a large stars and stripes flag on a building opposite the site of the Twin Towers had such a powerfully emotional impact on 11 September 2001.
From the very beginnings of the United States, the flag has played a role in the careers of all naval personnel. Perhaps in no Sailor’s story, however, has the country’s flag figured more prominently than in that of the Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones. Jones is remembered for bringing America’s fight for liberty to the shores of the enemy—the Ranger’s capture of HMS Drake in the Irish Sea, the raid on Whitehaven, Scotland, and especially the Bonhomme Richard ’s capture of HMS Serapis in the Battle off Flamborough Head, within site of the English shore. As proud as he was of these accomplishments at the birth of the nation, John Paul Jones boasted as well of his association with the birth of the flag.
Even before the American colonies were independent or had adopted a national ensign to symbolize their rights as a free and equal people, John Paul Jones understood the power of a flag to embody the aspirations of a nation and to inspire loyalty. On 6 December 1775, as the Continental Navy ship Alfred’s newly commissioned first lieutenant, Jones hoisted the Grand Union flag of the thirteen united colonies. Recalling this event four years later, he wrote, “I hoisted with my own hands the flag of freedom the first time it was displayed on board the Alfred in the Delaware.”
On 4 July 1777, the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Captain John Paul Jones hoisted the stars and stripes flag on board his own command, the Continental Navy ship Ranger, then in Boston Harbor fitting out for a cruise against the enemies of the Scottish born Jones’s adopted country. Just a few weeks earlier, on 14 June 1777, meeting in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, the Continental Congress decreed the design for the new nation’s national ensign. Congress resolved “that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” Later that same day, Congress appointed Jones commander of the Ranger, the ship in which he would make the enemy taste the bitter draft of war in their home waters.
On 14 February 1778, seven months after first hoisting the stars and stripes aboard Ranger, Jones exchanged salutes with a French fleet’s flagship in Quiberon Bay, France. On 6 February the French king had secretly signed treaties of commerce and of alliance with the United States. The exchange of salutes in Quiberon Bay was the first official public act of recognition of the flag of the United States as an independent nation by another sovereign country.
On this Fourth of July, aware of the place of the flag in the career and in the heart of John Paul Jones, one of the founders of the Navy’s proud heritage, we might consider what the flag means to us.