The history of the state flag of Kentucky revolves around its chosen symbolism for representing the spirit of the people of the commonwealth. Although based on the idea of two representative men embracing in friendship, the figures went through many changes in dress, attitude, and types of handshakes. After a period of 170 years, with some mistakes, a fire, possible conspiracies, and the delays of history, the Kentucky flag achieved its design as originally intended.
In a young United States, the Commonwealth of Kentucky was still considered the western frontier at the time of its admission to the union in 1792. This sense of being a new state and joining the established US was incorporated into the state seal and the state flag of Kentucky. As envisioned at the time, two men embrace in friendship, one dressed in buckskin, the other in a formal frockcoat and pants. The new state motto was “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.”
A silversmith named David Humphreys was commissioned to make the state seal for twelve pounds sterling. His first effort did not go well. The embrace of the two figures was so close that the face of one of the men was hidden. The original seal was destroyed by a fire in the capitol building in 1814. Other efforts to recreate the design also proved unsatisfactory, and different versions were attempted and later discarded.
The seal was first changed to two formally dressed men embracing, and then it became two men in buckskin who are shaking hands. A different version showed two men clasping one another’s hands. In one attempt, not well received, two men in cloaks embraced with expressions that were thought to be less than friendly. Along the way, coats, hats, and shoes all changed style.
Different forms of embraces and handshakes were also tried. One showed the men shaking with opposite hands, right and left. This was thought so odd that it was attributed to a possible secret symbol among die makers or outright sabotage meant to disparage Kentuckians. Still, even through the Civil War, the state kept its idea of two men welcoming each other in friendship as the symbol of its flag.
Finally, in 1962, the Kentucky General Assembly passed a law regarding the state flag of Kentucky. It made the seal of Kentucky show a frontiersman who is grasping the shoulder while shaking the statesman's hand. The frontiersman is a symbol of the spirit of the original settlers, and the statesman is representative of the Kentuckians who serve the citizens of the state in government.
On the state flag of Kentucky, the seal is centered on a field of navy blue. Above the seal is the legend “Commonwealth of Kentucky” in a half circle, below in a half circle is a spray of goldenrod, the state flower. The flag retains the state motto, which was taken from the lyrics of a popular 1768 song by Maryland patriot John Dickinson. Kentucky’s first governor, Isaac Shelby, was reportedly very taken with the lines from the song, “Then join in hand/Brave Americans all/By uniting we stand/By dividing we fall.”