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During the last week in June, I listened on cable television to the great House debate on the proposed constitutional amendment to ban “desecration” of the American flag. (In case you’ve forgotten, it got 254 votes in favor to 177 against, 46 short of the required two-thirds majority.) It sent me back to the books to find out how this particular national symbol had been doing all its long years of being unprotected. And one of the very first things I found was a complaint from a Massachusetts representative that what was “talked about as though … a rag, with certain stripes and stars upon it, tied to a stick and called a flag, was a wizard’s wand.”

This was a Yankee conservative named Josiah Quincy speaking, early in the 180Os. He was choleric at the failure of the national government to provide a strong navy, without which the American flag offered no protection to New England’s merchant ships. “You have a piece of bunting upon a staff, and call it a flag,” Quincy expostulated, “but if you have no maritime power to maintain it, you have a name and no reality; you have the shadow without the substance.”

Contrast this distinction between the symbolism and actuality of a “piece of bunting” with the “Code of Etiquette for Display and Use of the U.S. Flag,” which is part of Public Law 94-344. The code prescribes that the flag must never be allowed to touch the ground or the floor and must be flown only in rigidly defined positions and circumstances. If it falls into a condition that makes it “no longer a fitting emblem for display,” it must be “destroyed in a dignified way, preferably”—take note —“by burning in private.”

The code, in short, treats the flag as an object of reverence in itself. It was adopted by a conference of sixty-eight patriotic organizations in 1923, embraced by Congress in a joint resolution in 1942, and embodied in law in 1976. Those dates have meaning. Respect for what the flag represents is an old American story, but veneration of the thing itself, fears of its loss of “sacredness,” and the legislative imposition of flag rituals—these are twentieth-century contrivances, spurred into being by mass immigration, two world wars, and a bicentennial birthday.

At the start of the nation’s existence, there was neither a flag nor an agreement on what one should look like. Only on June 14, 1777—almost a full year after the Declaration of Independence—did the Continental Congress resolve that the flag “of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white” and that the union or canton (the square in the upper corner) be “thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” There was no prescribed shape or arrangement for the stars, nor were there any rules for the display of the American flag. And there’s no historical foundation for the pleasant story that Betsy Ross sewed the first one.

After Vermont and Kentucky had joined the Union, Congress authorized a fifteen-stripe flag in 1794. It stayed that way until 1818 despite the addition of new states, and it was a fifteen-stripe “star-spangled banner” that Francis Scott Key saw through the rockets’ red glare in 1814. Congress finally froze the number of stripes at thirteen as of July 4,1818, but ruled that thence-forth a star would be added for each new state. And so it has remained. The flag got very little official attention thereafter. It wasn’t even adopted by the Army until 1834 or carried in battle before the war with Mexico.

Unofficially, however, it was taking on growing symbolic importance, mostly conveyed through literature in that word-loving age when songs and “declamations” were the staple of holiday entertainment. There was, of course, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.” There was Joseph Rodman Drake’s 1819 poem “The American Flag,” which begins: “When Freedom from her mountain height, / Unfurled her standard to the air,/ She tore the azure robe of night,/ And set the stars of glory there.” A Yankee sea captain is said to have first used the term Old Glory in 1824. In 1830 Daniel Webster hoped aloud on the floor of Congress that his dying gaze would rest on a flag without a single star erased or a single stripe polluted, bearing the words Liberty and Union, now and forever .

The onset of the Civil War, of course, gave all patriotic symbols a new and powerful significance. The first local Flag Day was celebrated in Hartford, Connecticut, on June 14, 1861. Regimental flags were the target of shot and shell and sometimes were captured in hand-to-hand fighting. “We’ll rally round the flag, boys” ran the words in a popular northern anthem, “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” while “Marching through Georgia,” promised the slaves that Sherman’s men carried “the flag that makes you free.” And there was Whittier’s fictional Barbara Frietchie defying the Confederate occupiers of Frederick, Maryland, who blazed away at the Stars and Stripes hanging from her window. “‘Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, / But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.”

On the other hand, there were those like Lydia Maria Child, a Boston writer and abolitionist, disgusted that in the war’s early years the flag still protected slavery. “May the curse of God rest upon it!” she wrote in a letter. “May it be trampled in the dust, kicked by the rebels, and spit upon by tyrants. … I would as soon wear the rattlesnake upon my bosom as the eagle.”