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Seasons Of The Flag

June 2024
11min read

After years of ups and downs, Old Glory has just made its greatest comeback.

besty ross
Betsy Ross shows Major Ross, Robert Morris, and George Washington how she cut the stars for the American flag in an 18th century painting. Library of Congress

Half a year ago, Amherst, Massachusetts, held a meeting to discuss hanging American flags along the town’s main routes. The head of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter had spent $1,000 on 29 flags, hoping to fly them for months at a time, instead of just on national holidays, as was the town’s original plan. A physics professor from the University of Massachusetts rose to object. The Stars and Stripes, she explained, was “a symbol of terrorism and death and fear and destruction and oppression.” Normally, such a protest would not make national news, but the meeting was held on the evening of September 10. Over the next few days, the professor was widely quoted and subsequently bombarded with furious phone calls and e-mails. Meanwhile, across the country, American flags blossomed in a profusion certainly not approached since World War II, or perhaps ever.

Abbie Hoffman regretted “that I have only one shirt to give for my country.”

The flag has weathered a variety of national attitudes since it first flew, ranging from reverence to indifference, but what we are witnessing now is its return from an era unique in our history, the sour aftermath of Vietnam, when it became nearly as divisive a symbol as it had been on the battlefields of the Civil War.

The flag and American patriotism have always been interwoven. The national anthem, written during the War of 1812, is not about the land or people but about the survival of the banner during a night assault on Baltimore Harbor. Betsy Ross’s involvement with its creation may be mythical, but her home is nonetheless a national shrine.

“The flag is the embodiment, not of sentiment, but of history,” said Woodrow Wilson, and it is perfectly true that the country and the banner were created at the same time. On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress approved the design of a national flag, mandating that it “shall be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars, white on a blue field, representing a new constellation.” Despite this congressional decree, the flag was not a potent symbol in early America; for one thing, there were no early laws to standardize its appearance. To alleviate the resulting confusion, President James Monroe signed a bill on April 4, 1818, directing that the flag have “thirteen horizontal stripes of alternate red and white [some people had been crowding the banner by adding a new stripe with every new star]; that the union have twenty white stars in a blue field; that one star be added on the admission of every new state in the Union.”

By 1831 the uniform design had established enough of a hold on American sentiments that when Capt. William Driver, unfurling the new ship’s flag on his brig Charles Dogget as he set sail from Salem for the South Pacific, declared, “I name thee Old Glory,” the name took—forever.

But it was the Civil War that first inspired something like devotional attitudes toward the banner. Recognizing the unifying power of the flag, President Lincoln refused to remove the stars representing the rebelling states. In 1861, shortly after the attack on Fort Sumter, Hartford, Connecticut, initiated Flag Day on June 14. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote one of the most popular of all nineteenth-century American poems about Barbara Frietchie, an elderly resident of Frederick, Maryland, who, refusing to remove the Stars and Stripes from her window as Stonewall Jackson’s troops passed beneath, is supposed to have called out, “Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, but spare your country’s flag.” When Nashville fell, in 1862, it was Captain Driver’s “Old Glory” from the Charles Dogget that was raised above the state capitol. In 1864, when Union troops, after a calamitous day at Murfreesboro, heard a Chicago glee club singing a song by George Frederick Root, one wrote that the tune’s effect was “little short of miraculous. It put as much spirit . . . into the camp as a splendid victory.” The song was “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” and its most inspiring line was “Yes, we’ll rally round the flag, boys. . . .”

In the decades following the war, reverence toward the flag increased. In 1870 Betsy Ross’s grandson made the claim that George Washington had requested she sew the first one. At the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition the enormous starspangled one that had flown over Fort McHenry during the British attempt on Baltimore was publicly displayed for the first time. Two years later, Sen. George Frisbie Hoar, a Massachusetts Republican, thundered that the flag was “beautiful as a flower to those who love it, terrible as a meteor to those who hate it” and called it “the symbol of the power and glory, and the honor, of . . . Americans.” By the late 1880s, students in Wisconsin and New York were celebrating Flag Day, and within a decade the holiday had been taken up nationwide. Allegiance to the flag was first pledged on the future grounds of the Chicago world’s fair on Columbus Day in 1892. (which was also the first Columbus Day celebration). The pledge had been written by Francis Bellamy and published in his Youth’s Companion magazine a month earlier. In its original form it read, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands; one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Two years later Congress required that the flag fly over the east and west fronts of the Capitol. In 1897 John Philip Sousa composed the definitive American march, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

By 1905 old glory had become so popular with advertisers that Congress prohibited the registration of a trademark that “consists of or comprises the flag.” Two years later, the Supreme Court upheld in Halter v. Nebraska a law preventing the flag from being put on mercantile objects, ruling that “such an use tends to degrade and cheapen” it. President Taft standardized the flag’s proportions in 1912, and four years later Woodrow Wilson officially recognized Flag Day with a presidential proclamation. Shortly after the onset of World War II, the Pledge of Allegiance received congressional blessing (the Ku Klux Klan vigorously supported the action). In 1923 civic groups met in Washington, D.C., to create a regulated flag etiquette. Nineteen years later, Congress expanded upon the recommendations, creating the Flag Code, a listing of proper ways to display Old Glory.

“It seems it always happens,” says James Cagney’s George M. Cohan (himself, of course, the composer of the exuberant ode “You’re a Grand Old Flag”—the title slightly refined from its original, “You’re a Grand Old Rag”) in the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy , “whenever we get too high-hat and too sophisticated for flag-waving, some thug nation decides we’re a push-over all ready to be blackjacked. And it isn’t long before we’re looking up, mighty anxiously, to be sure the flag’s still waving over us.”

The movie had Cohan saying this at the outbreak of World War I, but the sentiment was more applicable to the year the film was made, 1942, with the nation just emerged from the grim and straitened years of the Great Depression, a time that sorely tried many people’s patriotic instincts.

During the two decades after the end of the Second World War, American patriotism remained high—although, in the years of Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, with an ugly tinge of coercion added. It was during that era that the most controversial change was worked on the Pledge of Allegiance when, in 1954, national law inserted the words under God into it.

The flag was prominent in the civil rights movement. During a 1960 lunch-counter sit-in in North Carolina, the prointegration students waved American flags, while the counter-demonstrators used Confederate banners. The flag flew over the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march.

Then came the war in Vietnam. When president Johnson argued that the Army sent “you to [war to] defend that flag,” many of the country’s youth agreed—and took to burning the banner in protest. One of the first documented cases was in April 1967 at a New York City peace demonstration. There was no federal law against flag desecration at the time, although states had ordinances against it. But pro-flag groups moved quickly, and in 1968 President Johnson signed an anti-flag-burning bill that imposed a $1,000 fine and/or one year in prison for conviction. During the debates one congressman suggested that any convicted desecrator be dumped 200 miles out at sea with stones tied around his neck: “Then tell ‘em to swim to some country whose flag they respect.” A Southern representative argued that “a flag burner is an enemy of this country and should be treated as an enemy.” Before Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, there was a movement to plant the United Nations flag next to or instead of the American one; Congress ordered that because we were paying for the mission, only the Stars and Stripes would go on the lunar surface.

A New Jersey county ordered its cars to display a decal—“Our Flag: Love It or Leave.”

The New York State Assembly debated a bill in 1969 to bar anyone convicted of burning a flag or draft card from holding future public office or a government job. In Burlington County, New Jersey, in 1970, the chairman of the county governing board, reasoning that “a little old-fashioned patriotism won’t hurt,” ordered all county-owned cars to display a decal— OUR FLAG: LOVE IT OR LEAVE .

The protesters started to wear the flag as well as burn it. A New York youth convicted of fashioning his pants from a flag was sentenced to 30 days behind bars and ordered to raise and lower the jail’s banner every day. A Brown University dropout, arrested at a Black Panther protest for donning the Stars and Stripes, said in his defense, “I saw wearing the flag as a symbol of my connection with our forefathers... some of whom wore the flag around their heads at Valley Forge with George Washington.” After his desecration conviction for wearing a flag shirt, Abbie Hoffman regretted “that I have only one shirt to give for my country.” When he appeared on the television program The Merv Griffin Show wearing the infamous article, the network blacked out all images of him, although it allowed viewers to hear his voice.

Authorities did not limit prosecution merely to burning or wearing the flag. In upstate New York one young man was arrested for driving a red, white, and blue Volkswagen; in California another was detained for using the flag as a beach towel.

Hippies also created alternate banners in protest. A group of Rutgers students marched to police headquarters, pulled down the flag, and replaced it with a plastic sheet with flowers attached. A former dean of the University of Buffalo Law School was arrested for flying a flag with a peace symbol instead of stars. In a New York City high school, there was a riot when students in an African-studies class replaced the classroom flag with a red, black, and green banner they termed the flag of black liberation.

The artist Jasper Johns had started incorporating the flag in his work in the 1950s, and there had been something playful in the canvases. He continued to use the flag in his art, but by the late sixties his work was reflecting the bitterness of the era. In his 1969 lithograph Moratorium , Johns painted dark stripes on a camouflaged background with a bullet hole in the center. In 1968 Cliff Joseph painted My Country, Right or Wrong , showing citizens blindfolded by flags, stumbling across a skull-littered ground. Two years later, Sam Wiener created Those Who Fail to Remember the Past Are Condemned to Repeat It , draping flags on 12 coffins surrounded by mirrors on four sides, creating the illusion of endless caskets. In 1970, at the People’s Flag Show in New York, three artists were arrested for desecration and convicted.

The private sector was also attempting to shore up respect for the flag. Reader’s Digest mailed 18 million free flag decals to its readers in 1969. Dr. Whitney Smith, the director of the Flag Heritage Foundation, proposed steps to depoliticize the flag, including the repeal of all flag-desecration laws and a return to the original 13-star version. Hoping to attract antiwar adherents to his ideas, he also offered an alternate Pledge of Allegiance: “I salute the flag of the United States of America by committing myself to the principle that the nation for which it stands shall ever be indivisible and dedicated to liberty and justice for all.”

Despite all the prosecutorial efforts, courts often upheld the anti-flag actions as legitimate exhibitions of free speech. Both the Colorado Supreme Court and a lower federal court said that it was legal to wear the flag on the seat of one’s pants. A federal court of appeals overturned Abbie Hoffman’s desecration conviction stemming from his House Un-American Activities Committee appearance wearing a flag shirt; the judges ruled that the shirt’s intent was to mock the committee, not the flag. In 1974 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Massachusetts desecration law as too vague, Justice Lewis Powell, Jr., writing that the broad law “fails to draw reasonably clear lines between the kinds of non-ceremonial treatment that are criminal and those that are not.” Courts also decreed that both students and teachers had the right to remain silent during the Pledge of Allegiance.

By the 1970s the flag had been deeply diminished as a national symbol, and even the bicentennial celebrations reinvigorated it only briefly. One quiet victim of this decline was Dan Salamone, who closed his flag-making company; his family had been producing flags since before the Civil War. His explanation for the business’s failure was that people were ashamed to fly the flag.

Yet toward the end of that decade of failed hostage rescues, stagflation, Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech, and the occasional nuclear accident, a public rebirth of the American flag was about to begin. At the Winter Olympics in upstate New York in February 1980, a motley band of American ice hockey players, on their path to the gold medal, upset the powerful Soviet team. The most lasting image of the games was goalie Jim Craig draped in an American flag, and the Stars and Stripes began to come out across the country. The sports columnist Pete Axthelm interviewed a woman who “hadn’t seen so many flags since the 1960s. When we were burning them.”

Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign strenuously promoted the virtues of old-fashioned patriotism, and wherever the candidate went, so did the Red, White, and Blue. On January 20, 1981, Iran released its American hostages on the same day as Reagan’s inauguration. The Massachusetts State House, which had refused to raise the flag until their return, flew it that day. The Speaker of the Massachusetts House, a retired Marine, said that he hadn’t “been so happy at a flag raising since Iwo.”

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial dedication parade in 1982, many of the participants marched with Old Glory, and when one veteran learned that the memorial had been designed without a flagpole, he questioned the omission, saying, “The flag is what we fought for, isn’t it?”

By the mid-eighties, popular entertainers were reflecting this new patriotism and interest in the flag. In 1984 Bruce Springsteen stood before the banner on the cover of Born in the U.S.A. album, and Lee Greenwood released “God Bless the U.S.A.” That same year, the public demand for souvenir flags flown over the Capitol building was so great that there was a two-year waiting list. Flag makers noted that business had ceased being seasonal and become steady, and in 1988 the largest of them, Annin & Company, recorded that its sales had increased about 25 percent since 1980.

Still, it could be argued that this resurgence of interest in the banner in part reflected the old divisions of Vietnam. The passions of the era were cooling, but the veterans were nonetheless replying to those who had decried their efforts, and in Springsteen’s songs there is a note of defiance, of the workingman making his statement against the cosseted types who in recent years had been too good to wave the flag. But if there was something querulous in the first President Bush’s increasingly urgent attempts to push through a constitutional amendment to prohibit flag desecration as the eighties gave way to the nineties—it “endangers the fabric of our country,” he warned—it is also true that proposing such an amendment would have been unthinkable a decade earlier.

With the nineties came the Gulf War. When it was over, a Connecticut flag manufacturer claimed that while business had been good after the 1959 admission of Alaska and Hawaii and the bicentennial, “Desert Storm has surpassed them all.” A few seasons earlier, the designer Ralph Lauren had placed the flag on his extremely successful clothing line; in this calmer era, he fared far better than Abbie Hoffman had when he incorporated it on his own clothing. Later, Lauren donated 13 million to help refurbish the original Star-Spangled Banner.

As Cagney’s Cohan observed, it is when war comes to us that we look to Old Glory. War came to us with a vengeance on September n, and, as the journalist and historian Donald Morris writes, “Even the flag-waving is something that hasn’t been seen before; not even during the second World War.”

The recent actions of Todd Gitlin, a professor of culture, journalism, and sociology at New York University, suggest how firmly rooted these newly displayed flags may be. As a president of the radical Students for a Democratic Society in the sixties, he says, “Back then, I saw the flag as an affiliation with a fundamentally destructive and failed nation-state. The country failed to deliver on its promises.” Dr. Gitlin now believes that the corruption and violence of the past have been partly reversed by democratic movements arising in the sixties and that Old Glory “now affirms the possibilities that America stands for.” Although he refused to fly the flag in the 1980s because of its association with Reagan, he hung it in his Greenwich Village apartment for several weeks after the World Trade Center attack. “I put it up to express solidarity with New Yorkers in particular, and a community striving to repair and dig out of a catastrophe. It affirms my attachment to the community I belong to.” Asked if he’d ever imagined he’d be flying the flag, he laughs. “No, I never thought so.”

In 1867 Charles Sumner wrote of the American flag, “He must be cold indeed, who can look upon its folds rippling in the breezes without pride of country.” For the first time in a generation, it would seem that the great majority of his countrymen feel the same way.

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