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In The News

March 2023
6min read

The Flap over the Flag

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.”

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.”


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