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What does red mean in the American flag?

What does red mean in the American flag?

The American flag is one of the most iconic national symbols in the world. With its red, white and blue design, the flag evokes a sense of patriotism and national pride in millions of Americans. But what exactly does the color red symbolize in the American flag? Here’s an in-depth look at the history and meaning behind the red stripes on the flag.

A Brief History of the American Flag

The American flag was first designed in 1777, during the early years of the American Revolution. Up until that point, a variety of different flags and standards were used to represent the 13 colonies that made up the fledgling United States. The Continental Congress decided that a single national flag was needed to unite the colonies in their fight for independence. They turned to seamstress Betsy Ross to create the first American flag. According to legend, George Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross visited Betsy and showed her a sketch of the proposed flag. Betsy recommended changing the six-pointed stars to five-pointed stars, which could be made with a single snip of fabric. Her version of the flag, featuring 13 alternating red and white stripes and 13 white stars in a blue canton, was officially adopted on June 14, 1777.

Since its adoption, the American flag has undergone 26 modifications as states have been added to the Union. But the basic design featuring 13 red and white stripes has remained unchanged. The 13 stripes represent the original 13 colonies that declared independence from Great Britain. So what meaning lies behind the choice of red as one of the flag’s principal colors?

Red Symbolizes Hardiness and Valor

Red is thought to have been chosen for the American flag in part because of its association with hardiness and valor. As one of the three primary colors and the longest wavelength visible to the human eye, red has a primal visual impact. Throughout history, the color has been connected with courage, revolution, passion, and sacrifice. Using red in their flag helped the Founding Fathers make a bold statement about the rebellious nature of the American Revolution. The new nation would not back down against the might of the British Empire. The red stripes proclaimed America’s tenacious fighting spirit to the world.

This meaning of the color red can be seen in numerous flags throughout history. The Roman Empire’s banners were red and came to stand for the unstoppable power of their legions. When France rebelled against royal rule in the late 18th century, they hoisted the red flag of the revolution. Communist and socialist movements frequently use red flags to represent the blood shed by workers and people’s courage in rising up against oppression. So by selecting red for their new flag, the American revolutionaries visually connected their movement with these connotations of defiance and valor.

Red Denotes Hardiness and Sacrifice

In addition to courage, choosing red for part of the American flag also signified the hardiness and sacrifice of the American people. Farming, hunting, and carving out new settlements on the frontier required endurance and a willingness to shed blood, sweat and tears. The red stripes acknowledged the difficulties colonists overcame to build new lives away from Great Britain. They highlighted America’s pioneering spirit in the face of challenge and adversity.

The connection between red and sacrifice is also clear in the Christian tradition. Red represents the blood of martyrs spilled for their faith and Christ’s blood sacrificed for humanity’s salvation. So red calls to mind the concepts of suffering, redemption and salvation central to Christianity. Many of the American colonies were founded by settlers seeking religious freedom and escape from persecution. The red in the flag evoked the sacrifices made by these colonists and linked their revolutionary struggle to spiritual liberty.

Red Signals Danger and War

Aside from positive meanings like courage and sacrifice, the color red also signals danger, aggression and war. We think of flashing red lights and stop signs warning us to halt. And we associate red with blood spilled in battle. In including red stripes in their flag, the American revolutionaries sent a threatening signal to Great Britain that they were willing to violently resist British tyranny.

Red’s association with war and bloodshed goes back to our primal instincts. Our primate ancestors probably linked the vivid color with blood, open wounds and exposed flesh as contrasted with living tissue. So red may signify life force, but also trauma and death. The American colonists embraced these threatening aspects of the color when they chose red stripes for their standard of rebellion.

Red Represents the British Soldiers’ Uniforms

In addition to abstract meanings, the red in the American flag may also refer quite literally to the uniforms of British soldiers during the Revolutionary War. Although they are commonly called “redcoats” today, British troops during the 1770s actually wore red jackets and white or tan breeches and gaiters over their legs. Still, the prominent red jackets made British regular infantry highly visible on the battlefield. The red stripes in the flag may have been a direct reference to the colonists’ enemy.

By including red stripes in the design, the American flag transformed a symbol of British authority into an icon of resistance. The sight of neat rows of red-jacketed British soldiers now brought to mind colonial Minutemen and raw frontier marksmen. The Americans boldly embraced red, the color of their opponent’s uniforms, and made it their own.

Red Represents the British Cross of St. George

Before the American Revolution, many colonial flags incorporated the British Union Jack in their cantons. This overlay of the red Cross of St. George on a white background represented loyalty to the mother country. By replacing the Union Jack with white stars on a blue field, the new American flag severed connections with Britain. But in selecting red as one of the stripes, the flag subtly preserved a memory of Britain.

The bold red stripes can be interpreted as fragments of the British red cross now shattered and broken in the aftermath of revolution. Yet red’s traditional association with courage and valor transforms the meaning. War and sacrifice have turned elements of Britain’s colonial symbols into relics embedded in America’s new national identity. Red survives as a reminder of British heritage transformed through independence.

Red Has Positive Meaning in Flag Etiquette

Although the color red has menacing associations with danger and war, it more generally signifies positive qualities according to the traditional guidelines of vexillology (the study of flags). In this academic field, the color red conveys the qualities of strength, fortitude and courage when used in flags. Red commands attention and respect. It signals a willingness to defend one’s rights and nation by force if necessary.

Vexillologists contrast red with the passivity of white and the optimism and moral purity represented by blue. So while different interpretations exist, the standard vexillological framework supports the notion that red signifies valor and sacrifice in the American flag. By including bold stripes of the color, the Founding Fathers ensured their banner would project strength and fortitude to the world.

Red Represents Severed Ties with Britain

On a more philosophical level, the red stripes can represent America’s decisive separation from Britain and forging of a new national identity. The PBianoists who came to dominate early American thinking emphasized reason, logic and knowledge derived from observable experience and facts. This philosophy stood in contrast with Britain’s reliance on monarchy, tradition and established institutions.

The American revolutionaries used reason to justify overthrowing these traditional bonds of loyalty and hierarchy. As a result, red symbolizes the blood spilled to cut ties with Britain and assert America’s newfound independence. The color represents a conscious rejection of the emotional attachments and customs that previously defined colonial identity and status.

Red Has Meaning as Part of the Red, White and Blue

The red stripes in the American flag gain additional layers of meaning through their combination with white and blue. This classic color triad has symbolized liberty since the French adopted a tricolored cockade during their own revolution in the late 18th century. America embraced the red, white and blue scheme when it sought independence from Britain and the formation of a new republic.

The French philosopher Charles-Louis Montesquieu directly influenced America’s Founding Fathers. Montesquieu linked red to democracy and described it as a color fit for fraternal societies. Against the red of courage, white represents peace and blue signifies vigilance and truth. Together, the colors embody the spirit of republicanism aimed at virtue and justice. America’s choice of the red, white and blue tied its national experiment in democracy to the ideals of the Enlightenment.

Red Appears in Other National Symbols

Beyond the flag, red features prominently in other American symbols that develop the color’s association with courage and sacrifice. The Great Seal of the United States designed in 1782 includes a red-and-white striped shield held by a bald eagle. This echoes the flag’s theme of valor in defense of liberty. The national anthem “The Star Spangled Banner” famously describes the flag remaining at Fort McHenry after an artillery bombardment during the War of 1812. The imagery of the flag’s red stripes still waving after battle reinforces red as a symbol of America’s steadfast courage.

America’s national personification Columbia was painted wearing a red Phrygian cap during the revolution to connect her with classical representations of Libertas. As with the flag, red links America’s struggle for freedom with historic quests for liberty. Depictions of Uncle Sam (the human embodiment of the U.S. government) clad in red neckties and top hats throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries kept red a consistent part of national iconography.

Red Represents the North in the Civil War

During the American Civil War, the North and South adopted different national flags based on their sympathies. The Union continued using the standard Stars and Stripes design. But the southern Confederate States created their own Stars and Bars incorporating two red stripes instead of one. So red took on the added meaning of representing the Union and northern states in their fight against secession.

To reinforce this symbolism, Northerners began painting much of their military equipment red. Weapons, artillery, wagons and other vehicles used by Union troops sported vivid red paint jobs. This distinguished northern materiel from Confederate equipment and made a political statement about supporting the preservation of the unified nation represented by the red, white and blue American flag.


In the American flag, the color red carries a wide range of meanings and associations for the new nation it helped create. It represents courage, passion and sacrifice through blood spilled in defense of liberty. The bold color choice connects America’s struggle for independence with historic quests for freedom. Red contrasts with white and blue to create an enduring symbol of republican virtues. Although the young nation would face many challenges, red proclaimed America’s revolutionary spirit and willingness to fight for its ideals.