Old Glory: Patriotic Symbol?

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tags: patriotism, pledge of allegiance, flag burning

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. This article is drawn from his book, 'I Love Paul Revere Whether He Rode or Not' (HarperCollins). His latest book is Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain. NOTE: This article was first published on HNN in 2006.

Nothing seems more natural to an American than to venerate the patriotic symbols that represent America. They are virtually sacred. Scornful as we are of the candidate who wraps himself in the flag, it is often the candidate who fails to do so who loses. 

But if Americans cherish their symbols of patriotism, they haven't always worshiped them. It used to be good enough just to respect them.

Take Old Glory, that "emblem of unity, of loyalty to home and to kindred, and to all that is sacred in life." The early adoption of the flag by the United States has been considered proof of its early acceptance as a sacred symbol of the United States. But that seems not to have been the case. Milo Quaife, in his exhaustive history of the flag, concluded that the generation that gave us the national flag remained astonishingly indifferent to it.

From early congressional debates, for instance, it is quite clear that the only reason the founders adopted a national flag was for the practical reason that the navy needed one for identification when sailing into foreign ports. The bill providing for the establishment of the flag consisted of a single sentence, just twenty-nine words long. The first verse of the Star-Spangled Banner is longer (fifty-two words). When in 1794 someone introduced a bill to add two stars to the flag to take into account the admission into the union of Vermont and Kentucky, many members objected that the matter wasn't worthy of their attention. It is "a trifling business," said one, "which ought not to engross the attention of the House, when it was their 'duty to discuss matters of infinitely greater importance." The Vermont representative agreed. In the end, says Quaife, the members approved the bill "as the quickest way of terminating" debate about it.

The existence of great varieties of flag designs demonstrates the profound carelessness with which it was treated. Some stars came with five points, some with six. Some stars came in white, some came in silver. Because Congress never specified if the stars should be arranged in a circle or in rows, flag makers stitched them both ways. On the eve of the Civil War it became fashionable to put them in an oval. Even the number of stripes seems to have varied by whim, though it was established by law. At one point the flag over the capitol had eighteen stripes, while the flag over the New York Navy Yard had only nine. The flag is a particularly poor example of an early sacred symbol, as many Americans--including top government officials--were unsure of its appearance. More than a year after its adoption by Congress, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, in a joint letter to the king of Naples, said it "consists of thirteen stripes, alternately red, white and blue."

They may be forgiven for their ignorance. For Americans in our early history seldom got the chance to see the flag. It did not fly from buildings. It was not put in the schools. It was never reproduced in the newspapers. And painters did not make pictures of it.

Wilbur Zelinsky, reporting on a search of major catalogs of art from the Revolutionary War, says he could not find a single depiction of the American flag. The erroneous impression that Stars and Stripes was ubiquitous in the Revolution is due to the fact that it is ubiquitous in the paintings of the Revolution done in the nineteenth century. But the fact is, not a single land battle in the Revolution was fought under Old Glory. There was no American flag at Bunker Hill, at Trenton, or even at Yorktown. Indeed, not until the Mexican- American War did American soldiers fight under Old Glory. Even then the use of the flag in battle was limited. The marines did not adopt the flag until 1876; the U.S. Cavalry not until 1887. Forget those pictures of George Custer and the Stars and Stripes. His men never carried it. Soldiers did not go flagless, of course. They had battle flags to keep up their spirits. But nobody cares about those old battle flags. What we want is Washington crossing the Delaware with the Stars and Stripes. And what we want the artists in the nineteenth century gave us; pictures with flags sell.

Pictures counting more than words, it is likely we will forever think of the "boys on Bunker Hill" fighting under the flag John Trumbull put there in his famous painting of the battle. When we imagine stereotypical revolutionary soldiers, it is Archibald Willard's depiction in The Spirit of '76 that we think of. It features the flag and three haggard patriots, one playing a fife, the others beating drums. It is part of the myth of America and no more could be eliminated from our national memory than the Revolution it honors so sentimentally.

Of America's Revolutionary War heroes, only one fought under the Stars and Stripes, John Paul Jones, who has been the subject of endlessly silly stories. Biographer Augustus C. Buell, for example, claimed Jones's flag aboard the Bonhomme Richard was sewn by a band of "dainty" girls "from slices of their best silk gowns"; one of the girls, Helen Seavey, was even said to have sacrificed her bridal dress to provide material for the stars. Actually, the story is as fanciful as Jones's famous sea-battle boast that he had "not begun to fight." And Helen Seavey never existed.

Better yet is the story of the flag's eventual disposal. After disappearing from sight for some eighty years, late in the nineteenth century it was said to have suddenly resurfaced. Through a chain of miracles, it was said, the very flag that had flown over the Bonhomme Richard had survived and survived largely intact despite its use during several fierce battles. The only thing missing from the flag was a piece that supposedly had been given to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. The family that produced the flag--the Staffords--had an elaborate story to explain how they came into possession of it. In brief, they said it had been awarded by Congress to one of their ancestors, who had bravely served under Jones on the Bonhomme Richard and who saved the flag from destruction when the ship sank. And they had an affidavit to prove it. The affidavit, signed by the secretary of the Marine Committee of Congress, dated 1784, confirmed that one James Stafford had been given "Paul Jones' Starry Flag of the Bon Homme Richd." It was considered authentic for a long time. The Smithsonian Institution even put the flag on display. (It remained on display through the 1920s.)

That was a mistake. By Jones's own statement, we now know that the flag that flew over his ship was destroyed in the battle in which he lost the ship; a cannon blew it up. We also know that the Stafford affidavit was a hoax. James Stafford never served on the Bonhomme Richard, and the committee that supposedly awarded him possession of the flag in 1784 had ceased to exist five years earlier.

No doubt the founders would be pleased to see that the flag is respected today. But they would not understand it being worshiped. Worship of the flag is strictly a modern development. A hundred years or so ago only a few self-appointed flag defenders conceived of it as a sacred object. Schools were not required to fly the flag until 1890. Americans did not begin pledging allegiance to the flag until 1892. They did not begin saluting the flag until around the Spanish-American War in 1898. Flag Day was not nationally observed until 1916. The flag code, prescribing the proper way to treat a flag and dispose of it, was not approved by Congress until 1942 and did not become part of federal law until 1976. The interesting thing is not that the rituals of flag worship go back only as far as the late nineteenth century but that Americans think they go back further. We have become so used to the idea that the flag is a sacred object that we cannot imagine a time when it was not considered one. However, there was a time when patriotism needed no such artificial braces. During the Revolution, when men were fighting and dying on the battlefield to establish a new nation, saluting the flag would have been regarded as an empty gesture. The thing to do was to go out and join the fighting. That was patriotism.

If Americans did not embrace flag rituals early on, once they did, they embraced the practice enthusiastically. There seemed to be plenty of reason. With the invasion of the "hordes" of immigrants from Europe, hordes with strange names and exotic accents, it was believed that flag rituals were needed to ensure the newcomers' loyalty. Fear, then, was behind the movement to adopt flag rituals, but nobody ever remembers that. Today it is the descendants of those "hordes" of immigrants who often seem the most offended by violators of the rituals. It is interesting to speculate what "the ethnics" (as the politicians refer to them) might think if Americans were taught to salute by extending their right hand, "palm up and slightly raised." This proved embarrassingly similar to the Nazi salute, however, and during World War II was dropped. By order of Congress, Americans then began "saluting" the flag by crossing their right hand over their heart. (David R. Manwaring, Render unto Caesar: The Flag-Salute Controversy [1962], pp. 2-3.)

Members of patriotic groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution so feared the immigrants that they began to embrace the British against whom their ancestors had once fought. One proposed making "an alliance of hearts if not of hands with our kinsmen over the sea." After all, "We are of one tongue, one blood, one purpose." Once the immigrants had been absorbed into the culture there should not have been much reason for retaining the rituals designed to Americanize the immigrants. But once invented, the rituals could not be eliminated. Every few years there seemed yet another compelling reason for keeping them. In World War I, they proved useful, as historian Bernard Weisberger has pointed out, in promoting "unity in the fight against the Kaiser." Later, says Weisberger, they were used "to inoculate against Bolshevism."

One cannot mention the flag, of course, without making reference to the story that it was Betsy Ross who stitched the first one. She did not, unfortunately. The whole story was made up by her grandson. Nor did she have anything to do with the selection of the flag's design or its colors. If anybody was responsible for designing the flag it was probably Francis Hopkinson, who was given credit by Congress for having done so. But no one individual actually designed the flag. Our flag came about through two modifications of the British Union flag, which included a red, white, and blue cross in the corner square and a solid red field. Our first flag, commissioned for the navy in 1776, was simply the basic British Union flag divided by white stripes. Our second flag, the Stars and Stripes, substituted stars for the cross in the corner square. The red, white, and blue colors were derivative. They did not, as some allege, come out of Washington's family crest. And they do not mean anything. Contrary to the Boy Scout Handbook, the blue in the flag does not represent justice, the white is not for purity, and the red is not for bravery.

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    Citizen Historian - 12/27/2009

    Interesting article, Mr. Shenkman, and hardly invidious.

    The flag is a symbol that stands for a nation. It is up to the American people, themselves and through their elected leaders, together to weave, patch and preserve the strong fabric that has made this nation as good as it has been up to now. If the narrative you wrote actually could harm the nation, then the country is in poor shape, indeed. I don't think we are that weak, myself.

    I think most people understand just from their own daily lives that a throughline can remain strong at its core, even if zigs and zags a bit, and even strays off course from time to time. Yes, throughout our history, there have always been haters and extremists and demagogues on the left and the right who tried to appeal to the worst in people. And yes, wrapping oneself in the flag remains a good way to win elections. But it takes much more than that to govern. Fortunately, the American people, for the most part, have a sense of decency and good common sense that has sustained the nation for a long time. And, I believe, will continue to do so for a long time to come. (That decency and courage is exemplified here:

    To listen to the debate in Congress on the flag burning amendment, you would think that only such a measure can buttress the nation and protect a weak people from collapsing during dificult times. Fortunately, the people I know in my neighborhood and workplace are made of sterner stuff. They and I will celebrate the Fourth of July and the independence of this nation just fine, thank you, by doing what Americans do best: interacting in a neighborly fashion in our different and diverse communities, urban, suburban and rural; stepping up to help those in need (remember our generosity after 9/11 and the tsunami and Katrina); performing our jobs--whether civilian and military--with integrity and skill; and hoping (if secular) or praying (if religious) that our nation will find its way safely through difficult crises.

    I sometimes wonder what course the U.S. would have followed, had Gerald Ford, whom I voted for, and hoped could bring about national healing after Watergate, been elected in 1976. And what would have been the course of the Republican party? As for more recent times, the sense of unity we felt after 9/11 didn't dissipate because of the way people felt about the flag, then or now. It dissipated because our leaders either didn't understand us or trust us enough to tap into what we share as a people.

    Last autumn, U.S. News & World Report quoted a Democrat pollster who found that people were tired of selfishness: "even Bush voters are eager for change and anxious to rebuild that old community feeling, especially after Hurricane Katrina. 'Americans didn't like what they saw,' he says. 'This isn't their idea of America.' There's more, he says: From the war in Iraq, to energy prices, to the budget, those he polled felt 'they were sold a bill of goods.' Still, they don't want to play the blame game. 'They want to roll up their sleeves and get to work.'"

    That's the America that I've always known. I feel lucky to live in that America, it is a good place. Nowadays, it seems that too many politicians no longer trust the people enough to appeal to their best instincts. As for me, I'm much more comfortable with the innate qualities of the American people than the hot air coming out of Washington. To my wonderful neighbors and colleagues, I say, Happy Independence Day.

    gary christopher gianotti - 12/7/2009

    Mr. Shenkman,
    I have been amazed at how many people have worked so hard to debunk the Jones-Stafford flag.
    There was two flags flown on the ship Good Richard. The flag that went down on the Good Richards was as wide as the ship itself, 21ft-30ft in length! You state Helen Seavey never existed? The Portsmouth Navy agent John Langdons, wife was a part of that flag making party and the 1st officer of the Rangers wife, Mrs Hall.
    The Portsmouth flag went down on the ship Good Richard. The flag Stafford was given by the Navy Sec. Brown! Brown Was ordered to give the Jones flag to Stafford by Capt. Barry. The famous Capt. Barry's mother was married to LT. James Stafford father/grandfather! The flag in question is the flag that Capt. Barry's wife made and presented to Jones in Philly for the Rangers.
    Most historians are clueless to the fact that Americans in the Navy/Politicians were fighting against themselves for power and control of the new Nation!
    This flag presented with documents from Capt. Barry was the real deal? If Barry was not telling the truth under NAVY LAWS. Barry and the Navy Sec. Brown would have been brought up on charges and brought before a military court for being dishonest. Do you understand that Barry's enemies in the Navy and Government would have charged them if they were not telling the truth. Flag experts do not know that is a fact!!!! These Official Navy documents presented to Stafford where legitimate under US NAVY LAW or a court of inquiry would have been held.
    Also, in regards to Buell. Buells Rev War father was involved in making and selling flags in New Haven CT! If you learn who sided with who in the Rev War. You may learn who flew what type of 13 Stars and Stripes representing that group or Clan?
    The flag you are debunking was made by Mrs. Barry, including women of Philadelphia who presented the flag to Jones. The Stafford flag was too small to be the Portsmouth Ensign flag on the stern of the ship. Second Sevaveys dress was white silk! No silk on the Stafford/Barry flag. So jones flew that Philly flag on the mast at the same time in battle! Try to debunk what I just told you.

    Stephen Kislock - 3/6/2008

    With the US Supreme Court appointing G.W. Bush president, I took my flag down and mounted it with the stars on the bottom!

    On the night of March 15 2003, I removed my flags from my front porch and have No US flag in my house.

    US Marine veteran, peacetime.

    Today, what does the US flag stand for, Invading Iraq? The Occupation of Iraq? The next War, with Iran?

    Carol Hamilton - 3/3/2008

    Wow! Brown University is "often regarded as the core of sedition in America"? Regarded by whom, I wonder?

    All I've heard about Brown is that it's the magnet school for the children of celebrities and wealthy foreigners.

    The Great Satan of the Ivy League?

    Rob Willis - 7/3/2007

    The flag began to gain its revered status during the Civil War, when the national flag became a sacred object to the regiments to which they were issued. To lose the flag in battle was considered the greatest dishonor, other than outright cowardice. And, this reverence did not spring from a vaccuum, it was simply codified when the loss of the Union and the flag that represented it, was a real threat. There was a reason Lincoln refused to have the stars representing the Southern states removed from the flag during the war: It did indeed mean more than just an indentifying hunk of colored cloth.

    Interestingly, it was the same men who died defending the flag during the war that helped launch the widespread adoption of the flag in classrooms, parks, and other venues. The Grand Army of the Republic, composed of CW veterens, were deeply disturbed by the rise of anarchist rhetoric in the late 19th century, prompting a widespread campaign of flag appreciation.

    Nice article, but too simplistic and ignorant of the bigger picture.


    John H. Lederer - 7/9/2006

    Curious with all this downplaying of the flag and the assertion that it really did not matter much until late in our history that both the U.S. national anthem (1814) and the Confederate national anthem (1861) were centered on national flags.

    Christopher Owen Dougherty - 7/8/2006

    The article by Mr. Shenkman is a very prescient one. It clearly identifies how people in this country have lost their perspective on what is important in being an American. The blurb about the representative stating that this is a "trifling business" which ought not to "engross the attention of the House" rings true today. There was a reported total of one instance of flag burning in 2005 (in Tennessee no less; Bill Frist phone home!) while 18,000 Americans died because of lack of access to proper health care. Our members of the world's most exclusive club - The Senate - voted 66-34 for an amendement to ban flag burning that was opposed by 53% of the American voters who were asked about it. We need to restore the proper balance of givernment in this country and our people need to understand that this will come through better understanding of the importance of citizenship in a civilly based Republic; not through desperate grasping of false symbols or the endless failure of a consumption oriented society. Our soldiers who fought and died did not do it for the flag; they did it to represent the great traditions of liberty, freedom and justice that are the cornerstones of our society and they did it under the hope that, with these themes in place, that true peace would follow for our nation and the world around us.

    Nancy REYES - 7/3/2006

    There is a good reason that"...the descendants of those "hordes" of immigrants who often seem the most offended by violators of the rituals..."
    It is because immigrants are thankful to a country where we have economic and political freedom, and unlike too many academics we have life experiences (Or hear stories from our parents ) where we can compare our freedom to other places.

    HNN - 7/1/2006

    For what it's worth, I hung a flag outside our house on 9-11 too.

    John Chapman - 7/1/2006

    Anything we say about our flag is a touchy subject and will offend somebody somewhere no matter what is said. This sounds exactly like a religion. A Christian-based nation shouldn’t be worshipping a symbol or an object anyway. We should only respect it and not drag it into the dust. But to worship it is pure stupidity or blasphemy depending on whether one is a real Christian or a secularist.

    "Worship of the flag is strictly a modern development. " I believe the intent of this piece of cloth was originally to reflect a basic reality of our territoriality however over the course of our nation’s development this became more an abstraction which in turn masked the absence of reality which in turn became pure simulation, like our Democratic process. The simulation doesn’t conceal the truth anymore, it becomes the truth.

    elementaryhistory teacher - 7/1/2006

    Mr. Shenkman, I enjoyed your article very much. I applaud you for your research and the crafting of an entertaining read. I agree with you that early on our citizens did not see the flag very much and our Founding Fathers would probably be very shocked at the importance that is placed on a square piece of cloth, but that is what it has evolved into. As an educator I feel it is very important for me to teach truths like the facts you have in your article, but I also understand sometimes myth and history become meshed together so well that it would do our national psyche too much harm to alter our beliefs. I understand the history behind the flag and its importance or lack of it in the past, but it doesn't change the fact that I appreciate it, love it, and fly it appropriately.

    Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/1/2006

    I don't see much "respect for the flag" in this article, which the author claims should be "good enough," without "sacred worship." He doesn't seem to care that a lot of men have died under that "silly" flag, so he can enjoy his right to trash it. But he has the right to deny the fallen his thanks, if he likes, while the rest of us just assume he doesn't know any better.

    Personally, I don't mind much when sophisticated adults want to research and write invidious stories like this. They don't do any good, but they don't do much harm, either.

    What bothers me is when their ideological brothers try to remove patriotic rituals and instruction from the public schools, and other places where children gather. This activity might result in destruction of the republic.

    One of my daughters was a student at Brown University on September 11, 2001. She reported that the entire campus was festooned with American flags--by the students--almost immediately after the attack, while many in the faculty seemed to disapprove. That this could happen at Brown, often regarded as the core of sedition in America, gave me great relief and confidence that our kids are still getting the message.

    I believe veneration for the Union Jack was probably well advanced by the time of the American Revolution, and it just took Americans a few decades to establish their own tradition, and their own colors, in the manner of their British forebears. After all, Sir Walter Scott died in 1832, and Shakespeare in 1616. They both understood patriotism rather well, and gave us a few lines to help promote it.

    Unfortunately, there will always be an occasional wretch in our midst who must some day go down to the vile dust from whence he sprung, unwept, unhonored and unsung.