Saturday, June 14, 2014

Three Cheers for the Red, White, and Blue—But Remember It’s Only a Symbol

Despite what the poster says, it was not the 140th Flag Day.  It was the very first, proclaimed by Woodrow Wilson to whip up patriotism for America's entry into the Great War.  There was no previous celebration of the flag's birthday. But in propaganda of any sort, facts are the first casualties.

Note—This is one of my hardy perennial posts.  But it is surprising how many folks don’t know this stuff.

In case you hadn’t noticed today is officially Flag Day, a demi-holiday easily overlookedIt is celebrated by displaying the American Flag.  Veterans’ groups often organize solemn flag disposal ceremonies.  

No other country on earth makes quite the fetish of its flag as does the United States.  The word idolatry comes to mind.  At its worst it elevates the symbol—the Flag—over the substance—the democratic values espoused in the Declaration of Independence and protected by the Constitution.  It is an absolute truism that those who wrap themselves most in the Flag—and these day that is not just a figurative term—are the most disingenuous and dangerous.  Witness any Tea Party event.

On the other hand, many of us—especially those who served in the Armed Forces or who were raised in a veteran’s household—have been taught to respect the Flag and “the nation for which it stands.”  I hang the Flag on my house every year from Memorial Day through Thanksgiving and always place my hat over my heart when it passes by in a parade.  It’s just the way I was raised. 

Part of the national devotion to the Flag comes from an odd combination of cultural coincidence and calculated political strategy.  Our National Anthem, not officially adopted until 1931 but widely used on patriotic occasions for more than a century prior, may be the only national song about a flag.  Not widely displayed except at military posts, on Navy ships, and on some Federal buildings prior to the Civil War, the Grand Army of the Republic heavily promoted its use after the war in a spirit of triumphalism of the Union over the vanquished South.  For that reason display of the national flag was highly unpopular in the South until World War I.

The Pledge of Allegiance was penned by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and socialist, for use during celebration the 400th anniversary of the supposed discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus.  Quickly adopted by schools as part of the daily ritual of beginning classes, the Pledge does not swear allegiance to the government—an inclusive tip-of-the-hat to resentful former Rebels—or even to the Constitution, but to a symbol, the Flag.

By the turn of the 20th Century the Flag was being used as a symbol of assimilation for the waves of emigrants swamping our shores—and as a test of their loyalty.  The most popular composers of the era—the March King John Philip Sousa and Broadway’s George M. Cohan made literal flag waving as popular as moon-June-spoon ballads.

During World War I, the Woodrow Wilson administration used flag imagery as part of their very sophisticated domestic propaganda operation designed to rouse support of the war effort and raise Liberty Loans.  After the war, the Flag was used to rally support for suppression of the labor movement, radicalism, Socialism, and Communism said to represent sinister alien ideologies.

Wilson proclaimed the first official Flag Day in 1916.  In 1949, with the country in the grips of yet another Red Scare, Congress made it an official Federal Holiday, although withholding the paid days off for Federal employees standard for other holidays.

June 14 is Flag Day because on this date in 1777 the Continental Congress passed the Flag Act which officially described a new national banner: “Resolved: That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.”

The new official flag—not, by the way, likely first sewn by Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross—was based on the unofficial Grand Union flag used by General George Washington during the siege of Boston.  That flag had the same thirteen alternating red and white stripes but had the British Union flag in its canton.  Of course that was before Independence was declared in July of 1776.  It wouldn’t do to keep the reference to the British flag. 

The Act was vague—it did not describe the arrangement of the stars in the field, how the stars should be shaped, or even how large the field should be.  Local flag makers working from the sketch description produced many variations with five, six, and even twelve pointed stars; with stars of different sizes; and many variations of arrangement.  Also the shade of blue used for the field depended largely on what blue cloth the maker might have at hand. 

The familiar thirteen stars in a circle was not only not standard, some historians doubt if it was used at all during the Revolutionary War.  Others believe that it might have been the flag used at the British surrender at Yorktown.

After Vermont and Kentucky were added to the Union two additional stars and two stripes were added.  It was this flag that was the Star Spangled Banner observed still flying over Ft. McHenry in Baltimore harbor after an all night British naval bombardment in 1815.  It became apparent that with more new states, adding stripes would quickly become clumsy. In 1818, after five more states were added, Congress fixed the number of stripes at thirteen with an added star for each new state.

But it still did not specifically designate an arrangement for the stars.  During the Civil War flags with all manner of arrangements were used.  It was not until the creation of the 48 star flag in 1912 that a specific arrangement was established.  The current 50 star flag has been in use since July 4, 1960 after the admission of Hawaii to the Union.  This year will mark the 54nd anniversary of that flag, which has been in service longer than any previous national banner.

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