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EVERY American schoolboy knows that Betsy Ross made the first U.S. flag for George Washington and the Continental Congress in 1777. It makes a pretty story, but historians are not so sure of its accuracy. Through the years, they have searched for evidence to support a variety of theories concerning the origin of the U.S. flag —that it derived from British and Dutch flags, that it evolved out of designs of the different colonies, that it came from George Washington's coat of arms. But today, all that is known is that on June 14, 1777. the Philadelphia Congress resolved that ". . . the flag of the United States be 13 stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be 13 stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.'' Eighteen years of digging and deduction have produced a new theory that the Stars and Stripes descended not from the national colors of some other country but from a red-and-white-striped symbol of unity flown by Calvinists in seven northern provinces of The Netherlands during the revolt against Spain that began in 1568. This theory, based on 16th to 18th century paintings as well as written records, is the work of Lawrence Phelps Tower, a Wall Street broker who once made a business of tracking down obscure paintings for art galleries, and who for the last ten years has been national secretary of the U.S. Flag Foundation.

Tower's curiosity was first aroused by an American flag of stripes alone, which he found in a Revolutionary period painting. He began putting together a pictorial narrative of contemporary pictures that showed a steady evolution of a similar striped flag in The Netherlands, England and America.

The first striped flag that Tower found bore seven red "stripes of rebellion" (see opposite) for the provinces of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Friesland, Groningen and Overijssel, strongholds of the Reformation. According to Tower, Dutch refugees carried this flag with them to the southern counties of England, where Puritanism was strongest, and around 1574 it began to appear on British ships, sometimes with four red stripes, and sometimes with the red cross of St. George in the canton (the upper corner next to the staff). Contemporary views show that it was carried by some ships against the Spanish Armada in 1588. In time it was adopted by both the British and Dutch East India Companies.

In the early 17th century, Puritans from Holland and England crossed to America, and when the first colonial confederation was formed for mutual safety in 1643 among Plymouth, Massachusetts, New Haven and Connecticut, Tower believes, a flag of four red stripes was adopted and flown from coastal trading vessels as shown in a 1647 view of New Amsterdam (opposite). From these Puritan beginnings, the red-and-white-striped flag gradually took on a national symbolism. It appeared in New York during the Stamp Act Congress of 1765, with nine red and white stripes—for New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island. Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and South Carolina—and was adopted by the Sons of Liberty, again as the "Stripes of Rebellion" (below).

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