The people of the United States actually have two national flags: one for our military government and another for the civil. Each one has fifty stars in its canton and thirteen red and white stripes, but there are several important differences.
Although most Americans think of the Stars and Stripes (above left) as their only flag, it is actually for military affairs only. The other one, meant by its makers for wider use (peacetime), has vertical stripes with blue stars on a white field (above right). You can see this design, which bears civil jurisdiction, in the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs flags, but their service insignias replace the fifty stars.
I first learned of the separate, civil flag when I was reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850. The introduction, titled "The Custom House," includes this description:
From the loftiest point of its roof, during precisely three and a half hours of each forenoon, floats or droops, in breeze or calm, the banner of the republic; but with the thirteen stripes turned vertically, instead of horizontally, and thus indicating that a civil, and not a military post of Uncle Sam's government, is here established.
It took me two years of digging before I found a picture that matched what he was describing: my second clue was an original Illuminated History of North America (1860). If this runs against your beliefs, look up those two references.
History book publishers contribute to the public's miseducation by always picturing the flag in military settings, creating the impression that the one with horizontal stripes is the only one there is. They don't actually lie; they just tell half the truth. For example, the "first American flag" they show Betsy Ross sewing at George Washington's request, was for the Revolution - of course it was military.
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