Tasked with updating the American flag following the War of 1812, New York Representative Peter H. Wendover sought the advice of Captain Samuel C. Reid, one of America’s most famous privateers. After privateering under the star-spangled banner, what fresh ideas could Reid bring to the much-needed new design?
By the time Francis Scott Key penned “The Star-Spangled Banner” on September 13, 1814, the inspiring flag that waved over Fort McHenry had already slipped out of date. Three states (Tennessee, Ohio, and Louisiana) had joined the Union since the flag’s creation in 1794, bringing the total up from the 15 reflected on the broad stripes and bright stars in Key’s poem. It wasn’t until the 14th Congress (1815–1817) that lawmakers addressed the growing discrepancy between the reality of nation’s physical growth and its symbolic banner. On December 9, 1816, Representative Wendover brought the issue to the House Floor when he rose “to inquire into the expediency of altering the flag of the United States.”
Wendover suggested the formation of an exploratory committee and cautioned that he only sought “an unessential variation” to the flag. Thomas B. Robertson of Louisiana suggested a plan to keep the flag current indefinitely might be in order. Representative John W. Taylor of New York added a further wrinkle to the issue, noting sailors could spot the American flag from “a greater distance than that of any other nation” and urged that the flag remain “distinct to distant observation.” With these objectives in mind, the House approved a committee to design a new flag and appointed Wendover as its chair.
In early 1817, Wendover contacted Captain Samuel Chester Reid, a privateer and naval hero of the War of 1812. On September 25, 1814, Reid and the crew of the General Armstrong engaged three British warships off the coast of the Azores and fought hand-to-hand repelling boarders before abandoning ship. Their actions forced the British to turn back from their intended destination of New Orleans, giving General Andrew Jackson time to prepare for the triumphant final battle of the war. Reid conducted these actions under a letter of marque—one of the war powers designated to Congress in Article I of the U.S. Constitution—which provided private ships with bounties and federal permission to engage in targeted piracy against foes of the United States.
Chosen for his naval expertise, Captain Reid designed three separate flags for Wendover’s committee: the “People’s Flag” for general use with stars forming one larger star and 13 stripes; the “Government Flag” for federal use with stripes and an eagle in the canton; and the “Standard of the Union” to be used for celebrations and split into four sections displaying the stripes, a star made of smaller stars, the Goddess of Liberty, and finally the eagle. In his flag designs, Reid purportedly originated the plan to limit the stripes to 13 for the original 13 colonies. His People’s Flag and Standard of the Union would add an additional star for each succeeding new state annually on July 4. He additionally proposed a national cockade (a decorative badge) to match popular European versions.
The committee ultimately chose the simplest design, the People’s Flag, and reported their suggestion to the House on January 6, 1818. On March 24, Representative Wendover rose to make his committee’s case. Drawing on the memory of Revolutionary War veterans, Wendover urged, “In their memory, and to their honor, let us restore substantially the flag under which they conquered, and at the same time engraft into its figure the after-fruits of their toil.” After minimal debate, the House approved the Flag Act of 1818, and President James Monroe signed it into law on April 4.
The new flag bearing 20 stars and 13 stripes arrived at Capitol Hill on April 13, 1818. Wendover declared himself “pleased with its form and proportions” and claimed “no doubt it will satisfy the public mind.” His piratical co-creator of the modern flag, however, remained attached to all three of his proposed flags as well as a national cockade. In a letter written in 1850 to his son, Reid declared, “As soon as I am elected to Congress I shall have all these matters put in their proper shape.” Unfortunately, for the flag-makers of America, Captain Reid failed to secure a nomination and never managed to bring his more colorful designs to a House vote.
Sources: Emily Katherine Ide, The History and Significance of the American Flag (Boston: Huntington Art Press, 1917); Marc Leepson, Flag: An American Biography (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005); Samuel C. Reid to Samuel C. Reid, Jr., 17 February 1850, Manuscript Collection, Library of Congress; Annals of Congress, House, 14th Cong., 2nd sess. (9 December 1816): 268–270; Annals of Congress, House, 15th Cong., 1st sess. (24 March 1818): 1458–1463.Follow @USHouseHistory