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.
For hundreds of years, flags have been symbols of national identity all over the world. As a symbol of freedom and democracy, the American flag has been an especially powerful beacon of hope for some people and an unpleasant reminder of American imperialism for others. Besides being flown atop public buildings and in public squares, flags have been wielded by the military, by explorers, and displayed prominently in parades on Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Independence Day.
The first flag that flew in America was the British Union Jack, a combination of the white St. Andrew's cross and the Red St. George's cross. Another flag in use before the Revolution was the British Red Ensign, which featured a field of red with the Union Jack in the canton (the upper right corner).
The war that broke out in 1775 brought a disdain for what was now the enemy flag. A new Union flag was raised by General George Washington in 1776 and served as the American flag for about a year and a half. It featured red and white stripes and a Union Jack in the canton. Other flag variations were created during the Revolution. In 1776 Colonel Christopher Gadsden presented to the provincial Congress a flag that featured a coiled rattlesnake with the words, "Don't tread on me." The Pine Tree flag featured a pine tree in one quadrant of a red cross on a white field in the canton of a flag with a field of blue. The Moultrie flag, with a white crescent on a field of blue, was flown in Carolina in 1776 (one variety of the Moultrie flag added the word "liberty.")
The Stars and Stripes design was officially approved by Congress in 1777. This successor to the Union flag retained the red and white stripes but replaced the Union Jack with thirteen stars (one for each American colony) in a field of blue. For many years schoolchildren have heard the story of a young seamstress named Betsy Ross who created the Stars and Stripes, but no definitive proof that she did so exists.
In 1794 a new flag was created that replaced the circle of stars with five rows of three stars each and that had fifteen stripes. This flag flew for twenty-three years, until 1818, when the flag was returned to thirteen stripes, and a number of stars that varied according to the number of states in the Union. Since the addition of a star for Hawaii on July 4, 1960, the flag has had fifty stars.
Throughout American history, the flag has taken on extra meaning during wartime, both on the battlefield and on the homefront. After the Revolution, the next time the flag would stir the population was during the War of 1812. In September 1814 an attorney and amateur poet named Francis Scott Key stood on the deck of a ship in the harbor of Baltimore as he watched the bombardment of the American Fort McHenry by the British fleet. After the night of attack, Key observed that the 30-by 42-foot flag that flew over the fort had survived. He wrote a poem called "The Star-Spangled Banner," which was soon published in a local newspaper. In 1931 that poem became the words of our national anthem, set to the tune of an old song. The remains of the inspiring flag are housed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
During the Civil War (1861–1865), the American flag was again the centerpiece of strong feelings of patriotism. With the secession of the South, the American Stars and Stripes flag was now opposed by an enemy flag, the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy.
Writers took up the flag as an emblem of patriotism. An 1861 poem by Elmer R. Coates called "Awake! Awake!" declared that "the Star-Spangled Banner this moment implores you" to wake up and fight. In an 1861 letter to Kentuckians, Joseph Holt began: "Let us twine each thread of the glorious tissue of our country's flag about our heart strings." The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow commemorated a scene in 1862 when "the flag still floated over the main mast-head" of the Union ship Cumberland after it was sunk by the Merrimac, an ironclad Confederate ship. The poet Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a Civil War poem called "Union and Liberty" that began, "Flag of the heroes who left us their glory, / Borne through their battle-fields' thunder and flame, / Blazoned in song and illumined in story, / Wave o'er us all who inherit their fame!"
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the American people once again embraced the symbolism of the flag. A 1917 government advertisement titled "I Wish I Was Old Enough to Fight" featured a young boy, who was visiting his older brother at an army camp, saying: "The band began to play 'The Star-Spangled Banner' and the Color Sergeant and the Color Guard hauled down the Big Beautiful Flag, and there was a lump in my throat, but I didn't want to cry."
THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER
From 1793 until 1814 the emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, had been waging war against many European countries, including England. Needing more sailors, the British Navy began boarding American ships and taking both British deserters and American sailors to fight for Britain. In June of 1812 the United States declared war on England, beginning what became known as the War of 1812, which lasted for two years. During this time, British forces came ashore in Maryland and burned Washington, including the White House.
On the evening of September 13, 1814, the young lawyer Francis Scott Key was sent as an envoy under the white flag of truce to the British fleet that was anchored in Chesapeake Bay. His job was to negotiate the release of a doctor whom the British had captured. While Key was on board the British man-'o-war, its commander ordered that it fire upon Fort McHenry, in Baltimore, Maryland.
Throughout the night as the bombardment took place, Key watched and wondered about the outcome. By morning it was evident to all from the sight of the tattered American flag flying above Fort McHenry that the Americans had held the fort. Encouraged by the sight and with the tune from a popular British drinking song in mind, Key scribbled down the poem "Defence of Fort M'Henry" while still on the British ship. Later he made a few changes and the poem was first published on September 20, 1814 in the Baltimore Patriot.
During the 1890s the ever-more popular tune became the official song of the U.S. Army and Navy, and in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson asked that it be played at official government events. Finally, on March 3, 1931, Congress designated "The Star Spangled Banner" the official anthem of America.
Oh, say, can you see,
By the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed
At the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars,
Thro' the perilous night,
O'er the ramparts we watch'd
Were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare,
The bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro'
the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines on the stream.
'Tis the star-spangled banner, oh, long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
And where is the band that so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country shall leave us no more?
Their blood was washed out their foul footsteps's pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave,
From the terror of death and the gloom of the grave.
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Oh, thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation;
Blessed with vic'try and peace, may the heaven-rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, for our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God do we trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
During World War II, a bloody battle took place between the Americans and the Japanese for control of Iwo Jima, a barren South Pacific island. When Americans finally reached the summit of the chief mountain on the island in February 1945, they raised the flag, and the
moment was captured in a famous photograph showing six Marines holding the flag at an angle as they positioned it into the ground. The bronze sculpture based on that photograph stands in Arlington National Cemetery and features a cloth flag—one of the nation's most powerful uses of the flag as an emblem of patriotism.
Perhaps the most auspicious moment for the American flag was when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in July 1969. After stepping out of the lunar module, they planted the flag into the dusty soil, in effect claiming the moon for the United States. A photo of Aldrin, standing next to the crisp and bright flag, captures the ideals of a generation and marks the end of one aspect of the Cold War—the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States.
After September 11, 2001, the American flag again took on a deep meaning. A much-publicized American flag flew at Ground Zero, the site of the destroyed World Trade Center. As the United States went to war on terrorism, flag sales soared. The flag is a symbol of unity and patriotism as well as American cultural identity. Wars have helped to shape that identity, and the flag has come to represent the sacrifice of men and women in defending the nation and upholding its most cherished values.
Adams, John Winthrop, ed. Stars and Stripes Forever: The History of Our Flag. New York: Smithmark Publishers, 1992.
Quaife, Milo M.; Weig, Melvin J.; and Appleman, Roy E. The History of the United States Flag: From the Revolution to the Present, Including a Guide to Its Use and Display. New York: Harper and Row, 1961.
Sedeen, Margaret. Star-Spangled Banner: Our Nation and Its Flag. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2002.
Thornhill, Thomas E. Flags Over Carolina. Charleston, SC: Provost Press, 1975.
Williams, Earl P., Jr. What You Should Know About the American Flag. Lanham, MD: Maryland Historical Press, 1987.
Nobody can be sure that Betsy Ross stitched the first version of the Stars and Stripes. She was accustomed to making flags, but her role regarding the initial U.S. flag was not proclaimed until 1870 and continues to be much debated. It is certain, however, that thirteen alternating white and red stripes below a blue rectangle set in the upper left-hand corner bespoke power in North America and the Malay Sea before either the United States or Malaysia was formed. Both have flags like that flown by the British East India Company's men-of-war well before the Continental Congress passed its resolution of 14 June 1777 "that the flag of the united states be 13 stripes alternate red and white, that the Union be 13 stars white in a blue field representing a new constellation." It is unclear whether they had Vermont in mind for the thirteenth state or Florida.
The first flag of the national army of the American Revolution was flown at the siege of Boston (1775–1776) but was replaced after it was mistaken for a flag of surrender. The second, bearing the impression of a serpent, had unpleasant implications for the biblically literal and was replaced in 1779. The green flag of John Houstoun McIntosh's East Florida Republic of 1811 was equally easy to misunderstand, for it depicted a bayonet-carrying Patriot wearing a tricolor hat with his pigtail flying behind his head. When the wind reversed, so did the pigtail, and the Patriot appeared to be retreating in haste.
Read from any direction, the Stars and Stripes meant Union and freedom as well. As such, it has been emulated by Uruguay, Venezuela, Chile, Taiwan, Thailand, Burma, Tonga, Western Samoa, Liberia, Togo, Greece, and the Netherlands Antilles. Single-starred emblems, on the other hand, have fissiparous associations. The Lone Star Flag of Fulwar Skipwith's Republic of West Florida of 1810 flew for a month or two as a symbol of defiance of the federal government. It was resurrected by the secession convention of Mississippi on 9 January 1861 to became the Confederacy's famous Bonnie Blue flag. The very similar Lone Star Flag of the Texas Republic of 1836
drew the United States into the Mexican War (1846–1848), which produced the deepest divisions since President Thomas Jefferson's Embargo (1807–1809) and the War of 1812 (1812–1815). Albert Gallatin, Revolutionary War soldier and secretary of the Treasury for Presidents Jefferson and James Madison, later referred to the U.S. banner raised over Chapultepec in the war with Mexico as "slavery's flag." That was Gallatin's way, less inflammatory than that of the flag burners of a later era, of joining future president Abraham Lincoln and former president John Quincy Adams in calling upon the conscience of their fellow countrymen. Gallatin, Lincoln, and Adams regarded the Mexican War as being directed by President James K. Polk for the purpose of expanding the cotton-growing empire of his fellow planters, and they disapproved. The national flag has, therefore, been at most times the rallying point it provided George Washington's army after 1779, but at other times a symbol of sharp divisions in the American community.
See alsoFlag of the United States .
Arthur, Stanley Clisby. The Story of the West Florida Rebellion. St. Francisville, La.: St. Francisville Democrat, 1935.
Roger G. Kennedy
- 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.