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The Flap over the Flag
November 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 7
But the major drive to give legal substance to patriotic exercises and ceremonials dates from the period 1890 to 1930 and is part of the special history of those forty years. They witnessed an enormous wave of immigration from southern and eastern Europe, the beginning of an American empire, a rush into the First World War, and a “Red scare” fueled by the Russian Revolution. Compulsory flag rituals were designed first to “Americanize” the distrusted newcomers, then to promote unity in the fight against the Kaiser, and then to inoculate against Bolshevism. Witness: In 1890 the states of North Dakota and New Jersey were the first to require schoolhouses to fly the flag daily. The American Flag Association was launched in New York City in 1897, and June 14 as Flag Day was first proclaimed nationally by President Wilson in 1916. The Pledge of Allegiance was created in 1892 as part of a drive sponsored by the magazine Youth’s Companion to stimulate patriotism on the eve of the Columbus quadricentennial. Many states soon made it a mandatory school-opening exercise. The first statute requiring schoolchildren to salute the flag was passed in New York State in 1898 on the day after we declared war on Spain. It was not long until a majority of states mandated or at least encouraged some form of school instruction in flag respect.
The 1920s were especially rich in flag education programs sponsored by avowedly conservative organizations for avowedly political reasons. The United States Flag Association explained that “proper respect and reverence to the Flag of our Country” was never “so vitally important as it is today … [when] $1,000,000 a month is being spent in this country for communistic and other anti-American propaganda.” The America First Foundation (not related to the later isolationist organization) hoped to place a flag in “every American Home … [to] teach the youth of the land, the adults and the aliens, 100% Americanism.” The thirty-fifth “Continental Congress” of the Daughters of the American Revolution resolved in 1926 to foster “reverence for the Flag of the United States” and to strengthen defenses against “destructive revolution in the United States by the ‘Red’ Internationalists.” The Sons of the American Revolution called attention in the same year to their role in getting laws passed “in almost every State … which safeguard our National Emblem.”
The American flag wasn’t adopted by the Army until 1834 or carried in battle before the war with Mexico.
Fair is fair. Current members of these organizations will undoubtedly point out that they also promoted noncontroversial programs of instruction in English and civics for immigrants, plus oratorical and essay contests that encouraged students to become familiar with basic American documents, certainly a praiseworthy end in itself. Nonetheless, flag homage reached an early peak in an era of wartime conformity and postwar reaction. Politicians were quick to discover its virtues and to play variations on the theme of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” officially adopted as the national anthem only in March of 1931.
I have not pretended neutrality on this question. I think that amending the Bill of Rights to “protect” the flag is a bad idea. The Stars and Stripes that I respect don’t need that kind of help, and the politicians who proffer it remind me of a statement I cherish from the old Yankee Doodle Dandy George M. Cohan himself: “Many a bum show is saved by the American flag.”
My personal brand of patriotism gets its best polishing from the history books, especially the primary sources, and I take note that during this past winter Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, and Nelson Mandela, during their visits here, all said they were inspired by the words of Americans like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and many more. It may be a bit self-serving for a historian, but I think that the energy expended on harassing a few flag burners might be better expended on efforts to get us all acquainted with what we’ve been up to as a people (good and bad) for the 213 years that it’s been flying over us. To those who disagree I would submit the words of one John H. Fow, who, in 1908, published The True Story of the American Flag , an attack on the Betsy Ross legend. Anticipating rebuke, he said: “History is the best incentive to make men love their country; it encourages that patriotism which never falters, even at the cannon’s mouth. The sight of a flag or the music of a band merely enthuses as long as one is in sight or the other can be heard; but history and its knowledge are lasting and a source of pride. So, therefore, let it be true in all its details, no matter who may fall from the high pedestals upon which they have been placed by vain-glorious descendants.”