There is something to be said for at least examining the flag’s original meaning, given its history and what it symbolizes. This week, we start to get back to basics on the Midnight Run. This week we’ll have a brief history on the flag, how it was adopted, and what it was intended for. We’ll discuss how it has changed over the years, and how to display it properly. We will also (albeit briefly) shift into the controversial topic of flag burning as a matter of protest.
Blowback is looking at the flag for multiple reasons this year. Firstly, it brings the series back to the Revolutionary Era, which allows us to examine the ideals that founded the nation. Second, it allows us to focus in on a portion of the nation’s history (that of the flag) that doesn’t get too much exposure today. Third, it is to highlight what the flag represents, and why that is particularly meaningful today.
The text of the first Flag Act, typical of bills of the time (like the Constitution), was remarkably simple:
Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.
The flag’s design was loosely based on the Grand Union, with the upper left being not the stars representing the states, but rather the symbol of the British Union.
It is worth noting that, at the time, the colors of the flag were not said to have represented anything, but the Secretary of the Continental Congress, did ascribe meanings to the colors of the Seal of the United States.
“The colors of the pales (the vertical stripes) are those used in the flag of the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue, the color of the Chief (the broad band above the stripes) signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice.”
As the nation expanded, Congress updated the Flag Act with subsequent resolutions to provide for the flag to be changed to reflect new states being admitted to the country. The current flag maintains the 13 stripes representing the original colonies, with 50 stars in the union in the upper-left.
2.) Display. In 1947, Congress adopted a series of guidelines on how to display the flag properly. The US Flag Code lays out everything from how the flag is to be displayed, to its position when placed with flags from other countries, to the proper disposal of a flag. It is said to be merely a guide, as a lot of the guidelines in the Code, were they to be enforced, would never pass Constitutional scrutiny as law.
This leads to the somewhat awkward position where an item (say, a T-shirt designed with the US flag) is against a part of Federal law that isn’t enforced because it would be destroyed in court if it were. (The American Legion, for the record, has said that the mitigating factor is if it isn’t made from an actual flag.
The US Flag Code is easily accessible, and a fairly simple read as well.
3.) Burning. There is a customary way to respectfully dispose of a flag that has become tattered, discolored, or otherwise not fit for display. There is also the concept of burning the flag in protest.
This has been a controversial topic for decades. The debate centering around whether it is a disrespectful and hateful act or whether it is simply free speech. This came to a head in the 1989 Supreme Court ruling in Texas v. Johnson, in which the Court ruled 5-4 that desecrating the flag in protest was indeed free speech.
Justice Anthony Kennedy put it like this:
The hard fact is that sometimes we must make decisions we do not like. We make them because they are right, right in the sense that the law and the Constitution, as we see them, compel the result,” Kennedy said. “And so great is our commitment to the process that, except in the rare case, we do not pause to express distaste for the result, perhaps for fear of undermining a valued principle that dictates the decision. This is one of those rare cases.
Though symbols often are what we ourselves make of them, the flag is constant in expressing beliefs Americans share, beliefs in law and peace and that freedom which sustains the human spirit. The case here today forces recognition of the costs to which those beliefs commit us. It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt.
Interestingly, despite that case, there have still been people who were charged with desecrating the flag in some states.
Of course, particularly in the veteran community, even with that ruling, that doesn’t mean desecrating the flag will be taken lightly by everybody.
4.) Conclusion. The US flag is a simple, yet effective symbol of our country. The design both a recognition of our history and how we are today. Beyond that, it has come to represent the strength of the nation. (This is perhaps best shown in Thomas Franklin’s Raising the Flag At Ground Zero.)
In short, it represents things that seem to be in fairly short supply today. The flag is a representation of the country as a whole; representing all of the citizenry, regardless of political beliefs, race, religion, or any other differences. It is a representation of our rich history, and of the ideals this nation was founded on (namely, the ideals of a belief in the rule of law, individual liberty). It is a representation, also, of our strength as a nation (predicated on the strength of the individual citizen). The image from Ground Zero is iconic not just from a technical standpoint, but because it represented a nation emerging from what was a terrible situation. (The flag is, of course, covered in dust. But it is not tattered or torn in any way.)
As mentioned last week, Blowback serves two purposes this year. The first is to call back to our history, and one of the defining symbols of our nation. The second is to set the stage for a look at the ideals this country was founded on: individual liberty, self-reliance, and yes, the ability to defend oneself and if needed one’s nation.
We’re going to spend the first half of July looking at what made the country what it is, and how all of it can be used to strengthen the country in the years to come.
Happy Independence Day.
Stay informed. Stay alert. Stay free.