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FLAGS. Flags are the most pervasive symbol of allegiance in American society. While the American Stars and Stripes is the most ubiquitous symbol of loyalty, flags exist for every state in the union, each branch of the federal government and military, and for corporations, ethnic groups, religions, and almost any other social organization. Flags, especially the American flag, embody the core myths and ideals that undergird society. Unlike monuments, flags are often inexpensive, easily portable, and adaptable into myriad forms. Known popularly as Old Glory, the American flag inspires deep reverence and perceived attacks on it have provoked powerful passions. At the same time, the Stars and Stripes is used as a secular label on shopping bags, articles of clothing, car bumper stickers, and dozens of other consumer items and advertisements. Although displaying the flag epitomizes patriotism, Americans have long contested both flag standards and conceptions of its power. Myths surrounding the creation of the flag that are now hotly contested—including its invention by seamstress Betsy Ross—reflect the important place the Stars and Stripes holds in the imagination of the United States. This article will review the emergence of a national flag and discuss the many controversies that have attended it, with some attention paid to similar disputes over state flags.

Emergence of the Stars and Stripes

During the colonial era, Americans owed allegiance to the flags of England, France, and Spain. As the European powers gradually withdrew during the era of the American Revolution, the rebels of the thirteen colonies initially borrowed the flag of the imperialist East India Company as their own emblem. During the American Revolution the Americans used several flags, but none carried any national authority. American naval forces adapted the British Union Flag but added thirteen stripes in the field. Benjamin Franklin's cartoon of a snake divided into thirteen sections also was converted to cloth, with the motto, "Don't Tread on Me." Another reptilian image, used by the rebels after a naval victory, was a yellow cloth with a coiled rattlesnake about to strike. On 1 January 1776, General George Washington unveiled the Great Union Flag. This flag, with thirteen red and white stripes and incorporating the British Union flag, served without congressional sanction throughout the Revolutionary War and flew over Manhattan during the American occupation in the summer of 1776. But the American colonists were rebelling against the Crown, and soon rejected the Great Union Flag's crosses of St. Andrew and St. George. On 14 June 1777, the Continental Congress finally adopted a constellation of thirteen stars in place of the crosses, and thus invented the Stars and Stripes. Although the Great Union Flag fell into disuse, production of the Stars and Stripes was slow, and it was not generally available until nearly the end of the war. The new flag was most widely used at sea, where ships needed it to identify their nationality.

During the 1790s, as new states were added to the Union, there was some debate over the need to add stars. As the number of states grew to fifteen by 1794, one critic contended that in a hundred years there might be as many as one hundred stars, and that some permanence was needed. A second flag act, passed on 7 January 1794, fixed the number of stars at fifteen; Congress barely avoided passing legislation that would permanently restrict the number of stars. Congressmen at that time were far more concerned about the views of their voters than with building a national image; after all, there was no army or navy, and few Americans ever saw the Stars and Stripes. This change settled the matter for a quarter of a century.

Flag devotion increased after the siege of Fort Maher during the War of 1812 and the composition of the poem "The Star Spangled Banner" by Francis Scott Key. Using a tune borrowed from the anthem of the English Anacreontic Society (composed by John Stafford Smith), Key created a rousing patriotic song that reflected the seething anger of Americans toward the invading British. On 4 April 1818, Congress, recognizing that the old flag was now obsolete as it was five stars shy of the number of states, set the number of stripes at thirteen and agreed to add stars as needed. With this change, Congress subtly changed the meaning of the flag and recognized the march of manifest destiny across the continent. Even reflecting this imperialist consensus, the flag was not generally recognized or used. The U.S. Army had its own flag until 1834, when it determined to use the Stars and Stripes as the garrison flag and various banners of prescribed size for each regiment. Examination of textiles, china, glass, and wallpaper produced during the antebellum period shows use of the flag, but an even greater preference for the image of General Washington, personifications of Lady Liberty and Columbia, and the bald eagle. There was no full-time American flag manufacturer until the onset of the Mexican-American War in 1846.

Protecting the Flag from Challenges

The greatest challenge to the Stars and Stripes was the adoption of the red, white, and blue Stars and Bars by the seceding Confederate States during the Civil War. Variations of the Stars and Bars existed until the rebel congress passed a third Confederate Flag Act, just weeks before its final surrender in 1865. The Southern threat had the effect of making the Stars and Stripes into a popular flag, rather than one used solely by the government. After the surrender of the Stars and Stripes at Fort Sumter in the first battle of the Civil War, flags bloomed all across the North. The tattered remains of the flag from Fort Sumter were raised in a patriotic ceremony in New York City and were used as a recruiting device throughout the war. Popular magazines such as Harper's Weekly began publishing images of the Stars and Stripes weekly. Military songs such as the "Battle Cry of Freedom" became popular; that song used the line: "We'll rally around the flag, boys!" The war provoked angry outbursts against the flag as a symbol of the Union, and violators were harshly punished. One man, convicted of trampling on the flag, was hung in New Orleans, although President Abraham Lincoln removed the presiding general a few months later.

Patriotic fervor continued after the Civil War. With the rapid industrialization of the north and west, the Stars and Stripes was depicted in patriotic bunting and on advertising materials for bicycles, door mats, tobacconists, whiskey barrels, and porcelain spittoons and urinals. Such perceived abuses provoked the organization of the Flag Protection Movement (FPM), which flourished from 1895 to 1910. Lobbyists for the movement persuaded congressmen to back legislation describing the flag as sacred, and to attempt to ban advertising abuses. The FPM succeeded in transforming a secular symbol into a holy relic with the same status as the Bible and Christian Cross. A larger effect was to infuse patriotic loyalty to the flag with theocratic intolerance of other views. The beatification of the flag convinced its supporters—if not blacks, Mexicans, and Native Americans—that the banner had never waved in behalf of tyranny, injustice, and aggression. Backed by such racial and patriotic organizations as the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) and the Daughters of the Revolution (D.A.R.), the FPM built a national consensus that the flag needed to be protected by any means necessary. Beginning with the presidential campaign of William McKinley, politicians learned to wrap themselves in the flag and to insinuate that their opponents were not as patriotic, however doubtful such claims might be. During the campaign of 1896, a few scattered flag-desecration incidents spurred more discussion of laws to prevent them. Rather than focus on the egregious use of the flag by advertisers, legislators at the state and federal level aimed to stamp out the use of the flag by political protestors. A number of newspapers objected to this contradictory trend and pointed to vulgar political uses of the flag, such as tying a cardboard version of it to the horse that pulled a candidate's carriage. However, state courts generally upheld the use of the flag for commercial and political advertising.

Adoption of the FPM's tenets by super-patriotic groups soon led to use of the flag for racist and nativist purposes. Anti-immigrant rallies demanded that new arrivals to the United States "gather under its blessed folds." The G.A.R. began donating thousands of flags to schools and churches. Under such pressure, state lawmakers began passing bills mandating a daily salute to the flag before the start of the school day, and requiring that instruction in the salute be a part of the "melting pot schools" held for immigrants at major workplaces.

Reverence for the flag took on ugly manifestations in World War I: German Americans occasionally were forced to kiss the flag publicly, and a socialist rally in New York City in 1917 was disrupted when a mob forced marchers to kiss the flag. During the Red Scare following the war, the communist party flag was outlawed in numerous states. On 9 August 1925, the Ku Klux Klan advertised its devotion to the Stars and Stripes by marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., with a riotous display of American flags. Children who objected to the daily salute—including Jehovah's Witnesses, who objected on religious grounds—were expelled, an action upheld by the Supreme Court in June 1940 in the case of Minersville School District v. Gobitis. Though a number of newspapers criticized the court's decision, the case opened the way to further persecution of the children of Jehovah's Witnesses. The court affirmed what had become political reality by World War II: patriotism was synonymous with a ritualized obedience to the flag. This new patriotism was strengthened by the American military victory in World War II, with images like the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima. Joseph Rosenthal's photographs of this event formed the basis for the Marine Court Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.

The Flag and Protest

Flags and protest became nationally visible during the Vietnam era of the 1960s and 1970s. As Americans gradually became aware of the huge contradictions between government claims and military reality, and the military draft became a specter for middle-class, college-age American males, protest against the war reached high levels of social antagonism. One means protestors used to demonstrate their anger against the war was by burning the American flag. In the year after a public flag burning in New York City's Central Park in April 1967, hundreds of laws outlawing such protests were proposed. These bills arose just as the issue of flag desecration had nearly lapsed into oblivion. The New York City incident and others like it around the country were manifestations of the immense anger many young Americans felt about the war; they defended their actions with claims of free speech for political activity. In one case, an African American defendant named Sidney Street was convicted for burning a flag in anger after the shooting of James Meredith during a civil rights march in Mississippi. The Flag Desecration Act was passed in 1968, making it illegal to mutilate, deface, or burn an American flag. Violators were subject to a fine of $1,000 or a year in jail. Fierce debate over the law and multiple prosecutions followed over the next few years, and the nation was badly divided over the issue. In a narrow decision, the Supreme Court struck down Street's conviction in 1969, based on the belief that he was convicted solely for his angry words. The Court's decision virtually nullified the Flag Desecration Act, upsetting the Court's minority, innumerable congressmen, and other political figures.

The Supreme Court revisited the flag issue only twice in the next twenty years, both times avoiding First Amendment issues by concentrating on vagaries in state laws. It did not squarely confront the issue of flag desecration until the great 1989–1990 flag burning controversy. These cases focused on the members of the Revolutionary Communist Party, a Maoist group, who had burned flags in Texas. The Court determined that flag burners were not necessarily disturbers of the peace, and that the flag did not stand for national unity nor was it a symbol of nationhood. The decision came at a time when (successful) presidential candidate George H. W. Bush was intimating that his opponent Michael Dukakis was less patriotic, and was vastly unpopular. Once elected, President Bush announced a drive for a constitutional amendment, a move seconded by former Dixie Democrat turned Republican, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Both political parties blasted the Supreme Court decision, but legal professionals, including the American Bar Association, and an overwhelming number of newspaper editorialists supported it. Undeterred, Congress passed a Flag Protection Act of 1989; it was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1995.

Controversy over State Flags

While the American flag remained a lightning rod for controversy, state flags also came under criticism. Southern states integrated the Confederate Stars and Bars into their flags not in the Reconstruction period, but as an act of racial defiance during the Civil Rights era. A number of states adopted the symbol of the Confederacy into their state flags during the 1950s in response to the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, which outlawed public school segregation. In the late 1990s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) called for a boycott of certain southern states until they removed the Stars and Bars from their flags. In South Carolina, the Confederate flag actually flew from the state capital. After several years of controversy and financial cost to the state, a compromise lowered the flag to the capital grounds, although visitors still had to walk past it. A similar boycott in Atlanta floundered, although Mississippi's governor, Robert Khyatt, attempted to remove the Confederate flag.

Contemporary Flag Displays

The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 created a renewed, patriotic use of the flag. In the nation's grief, the tattered flag found on the site of the destroyed World Trade Center in New York City became a symbol of national unity, and was flown at innumerable gatherings in the aftermath of the attacks.


Boime, Albert. The Unveiling of the National Icons: A Plea for Patriotic Iconoclasm in a Nationalist Era. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Goldstein, Robert Justin. Burning the Flag: The Great 1989–1990 American Flag Desecration Controversy. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1996.

———. Flag Burning and Free Speech: The Case of Texas v. Johnson. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2000.

———. Saving Old Glory: The History of the American Flag Desecration Controversy. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993.

Marvin, Carolyn, and David W. Ingle. Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Quaife, Milo Milton. The Flag of the United States. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1942.

GrahamRussell Hodges

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165. Flags

any of various types of signaling systems using flags, mechanical arms, etc. semaphorist , n. semaphoric, semaphorical , adj.
a modified version of the semaphore, introduced at the end of the eighteenth century.
a standard bearer.
the study of flags and flag design. vexillologist, n. vexillological, adj.
1 . a military Standard or banner carried by ancient Roman troops.
2 . the men serving under such a banner.

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