On Saturday 14 June 1777, the Marine Committee of the Second Continental Congress of the young United States of America is recorded as having sought orders in the event of an attack on its fleet in the Delaware, as well as appointing John Paul Jones as Captain of the Ranger. In between those items of business, were the following words:
"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."
George Washington later offered an explanation of the flag's elements, saying, "We take the star from Heaven, the red from our mother country, separating it by white stripes, thus showing that we have separated from her, and the white stripes shall go down to posterity representing liberty."
The flag was likely intended for maritime use, not as a national standard. Indeed, official correspondence of the Board of War refered to it as the "marine flag." But the resolution was printed in numerous newspapers over the next few months, and so the Stars and Stripes became fixed in the mind of the people as the country's new flag. So, too, the phrase "a new constellation" became the familiar metaphor for the new nation.
Five years later, Congress adopted the Great Seal of the United States, which included a crest showing a cluster of stars described, as in the earlier Marine Committee resolution, as "a new constellation." In his notes and explanations, then Secretary of Congress Charles Thompson wrote, "The Constellation denotes a new State taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers."
At the time of its coining and use, the phrase was generally understood by the Founders and Congress to indicate that the country was "a new constellation" in the firmament of nations; in the galaxy of governments; and in the relationship of man to government, government to man and both to God.
The phrase was also represented in the first copper coinage authorized by Congress in 1783, with the Latin legend "Nova Constelatio." Similar to the circle in Benjamin Franklin's early monetary design, and one of the common arrangements of the Union in the flag, the new copper design incorporated the Eye of Providence from which emanated a glory of rays, all surrounded by the circular constellation of thirteen stars. The Eye, which was also featured on the Great Seal, was at that time a common Christian motif and artistic convention representing an omniscient ubiquitous Deity. Only several years later, around 1797, was it adopted as a Masonic symbol. Its use by Congress more accurately signaled the divine favor they believed shone on the new nation.
Today we mark the anniversary of the adoption of the Stars and Stripes. Let it rise on the highest flag pole, like a new constellation in the sky, signaling the first nation on earth dedicated to the personal and religious liberty of mankind.