Seasons Of The Flag


In the decades following the war, reverence toward the flag increased. In 1870 Betsy Ross’s grandson made the claim that George Washington had requested she sew the first one. At the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition the enormous starspangled one that had flown over Fort McHenry during the British attempt on Baltimore was publicly displayed for the first time. Two years later, Sen. George Frisbie Hoar, a Massachusetts Republican, thundered that the flag was “beautiful as a flower to those who love it, terrible as a meteor to those who hate it” and called it “the symbol of the power and glory, and the honor, of . . . Americans.” By the late 1880s, students in Wisconsin and New York were celebrating Flag Day, and within a decade the holiday had been taken up nationwide. Allegiance to the flag was first pledged on the future grounds of the Chicago world’s fair on Columbus Day in 1892. (which was also the first Columbus Day celebration). The pledge had been written by Francis Bellamy and published in his Youth’s Companion magazine a month earlier. In its original form it read, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands; one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Two years later Congress required that the flag fly over the east and west fronts of the Capitol. In 1897 John Philip Sousa composed the definitive American march, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”


By 1905 old glory had become so popular with advertisers that Congress prohibited the registration of a trademark that “consists of or comprises the flag.” Two years later, the Supreme Court upheld in Halter v. Nebraska a law preventing the flag from being put on mercantile objects, ruling that “such an use tends to degrade and cheapen” it. President Taft standardized the flag’s proportions in 1912, and four years later Woodrow Wilson officially recognized Flag Day with a presidential proclamation. Shortly after the onset of World War II, the Pledge of Allegiance received congressional blessing (the Ku Klux Klan vigorously supported the action). In 1923 civic groups met in Washington, D.C., to create a regulated flag etiquette. Nineteen years later, Congress expanded upon the recommendations, creating the Flag Code, a listing of proper ways to display Old Glory.

“It seems it always happens,” says James Cagney’s George M. Cohan (himself, of course, the composer of the exuberant ode “You’re a Grand Old Flag”—the title slightly refined from its original, “You’re a Grand Old Rag”) in the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy , “whenever we get too high-hat and too sophisticated for flag-waving, some thug nation decides we’re a push-over all ready to be blackjacked. And it isn’t long before we’re looking up, mighty anxiously, to be sure the flag’s still waving over us.”

The movie had Cohan saying this at the outbreak of World War I, but the sentiment was more applicable to the year the film was made, 1942, with the nation just emerged from the grim and straitened years of the Great Depression, a time that sorely tried many people’s patriotic instincts.

During the two decades after the end of the Second World War, American patriotism remained high—although, in the years of Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, with an ugly tinge of coercion added. It was during that era that the most controversial change was worked on the Pledge of Allegiance when, in 1954, national law inserted the words under God into it.

The flag was prominent in the civil rights movement. During a 1960 lunch-counter sit-in in North Carolina, the prointegration students waved American flags, while the counter-demonstrators used Confederate banners. The flag flew over the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march.

Then came the war in Vietnam. When president Johnson argued that the Army sent “you to [war to] defend that flag,” many of the country’s youth agreed—and took to burning the banner in protest. One of the first documented cases was in April 1967 at a New York City peace demonstration. There was no federal law against flag desecration at the time, although states had ordinances against it. But pro-flag groups moved quickly, and in 1968 President Johnson signed an anti-flag-burning bill that imposed a $1,000 fine and/or one year in prison for conviction. During the debates one congressman suggested that any convicted desecrator be dumped 200 miles out at sea with stones tied around his neck: “Then tell ‘em to swim to some country whose flag they respect.” A Southern representative argued that “a flag burner is an enemy of this country and should be treated as an enemy.” Before Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, there was a movement to plant the United Nations flag next to or instead of the American one; Congress ordered that because we were paying for the mission, only the Stars and Stripes would go on the lunar surface.