History, History Column

History of the Flag

The Star Spangled Banner Flag, 1814
The Star Spangled Banner Flag, 1814

June begins my 20th year with the Old Town Crier and 228 columns later another begins…In celebration of Flag Day 2013 the Museum of the American Revolution replicated the American silk standard that marked Revolutionary War General George Washington’s presence on the battlefield. His Headquarters Flag, with its 13 stars, stood witness to the most pivotal battles of the American Revolution. Not all flags are as enduring.

On June 14, 1777 the Continental Congress “resolved that the Flag of the thirteen United States” represented “a new constellation.” Yet eighty four years later the nation divided. During the Civil War General Washington symbolized not only the union’s togetherness (North), but also the second American Revolution (South).

“Southerners generally associated George Washington’s image with rebellion,” Museum of the Confederacy historian John Coski explained. “That he was from Virginia made him all the more southern.” The city of Alexandria is located 100 miles north of Richmond, Virginia, the Confederacy’s 19th century capital. Alexandria, politically speaking, is a southern remnant and the Confederate flag flew proudly until 1969.  It waved on special occasions.

“Alexandria flies the [Confederate] flag [because] it has a special place in the hearts of those who honor their noble, albeit defeated, ancestors,” the Alexandria Gazette wrote. Black citizens who “equated the flag with slavery…and Jim Crow challenged the practice.” In 1969 “a band of black citizens marched on City Hall and ripped the [Confederate] banner to shreds.” Alexandria resident James M. Thomson, Democratic majority floor leader of the Virginia House of Delegates, complained.

A segregationist, Thomson defended “the rights of those who cherish the [Confederate] flag as part of Virginia’s heritage.” A Byrd relative, Thomson “based his political strength on Alexandria’s white power structure.” “These days a flag has become less a clear symbol of allegiance and more a signal for controversy,” The Washington Post concluded in 1970. The American flag was the subject of controversy during the 1960s Vietnam antiwar. In recent weeks university students have walked on the American flag to protest racism.

Perhaps no flag is more admired than America’s 15 star Star-Spangled Banner Flag, the Great Garrison Flag which flew over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. In 1814 Fort Commander George Armistead offered the British an easy target. He flew “an American flag so large the British would have no difficulty seeing the Fort from a distance.”

On September 12, 1814, the British fleet attacked. The September 14th American victory, flag maker Mary Pickersgill’s Garrison Flag inspired observer Frances Scott Key to write the Star-Spangled Banner. Key’s poem became the national anthem in 1931.

The Star-Spangled Banner Flag, made of cotton and dyed English wool bunting, now hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It was received as a gift in 1912, the same year the Socialist Party held its National Convention in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Socialist Party, formerly the Socialist Democratic Party established in 1898 nominated Union labor leader Eugene V. Debs for president.

In 1912, four political parties split the presidential vote. Democrat Woodrow Wilson won; incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft placed third and Socialist Eugene V. Debs fourth. On June 14, 1913—Flag Day—former President Taft warned of socialism. Business and labor were at odds, the Department of Commerce and Labor broke into two, and Marxism was on the rise.

“The most notable experiment in the history of socialism,” The Washington Post reported, “that of Robert Owen at New Harmony, failed, as all socialism must fail, because it found no substitute for the motive essential to arouse and make constant human effort that is furnished by the institution of private property and the shaping of reward by competition and natural economic adjustment.”

With World War I Marxism yielded to Leninism. Still the United States and Russia remained allied; to fight a second world war. On June 22, 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the World War II Flag Etiquette Bill. The measure had eight sections including How To Salute.

“When the national anthem is played and the flag is not displayed all present should stand and face toward the music,” The Washington Post reported. “Those in uniform should salute at the first note of the anthem, retaining this position until the last note. All others should stand at attention, men removing the headdress. When the flag is displayed, the salute to the flag should be given.”

“The pledge of allegiance to the flag: ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,’ should be rendered by standing with the right hand over the heart, extending the right hand, palm upward, toward the flag at the words to the flag and holding this position until the end, when the hand drops to the side,” The Post continued. “However, civilians will always show full respect to the flag when the pledge is given by merely standing at attention, men removing the headdress. Persons in uniform shall render the military salute.” Francis Bellamy’s 1892 Youth Companion Flag Pledge, the pledge of allegiance became official in 1942; Flag Day in 1949.

The Cold War followed World War II. When Hitler’s Germany surrendered in 1945 Berlin divided East and West. Soviet Russia then created a godless Communist bloc. In 1954 Dr. Rev. George M. Docherty, a New York Presbyterian minister, proposed “that the words Lincoln inserted in the Gettysburg Address—‘under God’—be included in the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag.” Communism rejected the existence of God.

“To those who would call insertion of ‘under God’ a violation of church and state, the First Amendment means only that there shall be no established church,” Rev. Docherty continued. “The country was built on a foundation of theist belief, that atheists were ‘parasites…living upon accumulation of spiritual capital.’”

Scores of organizations backed the change. The Unitarian Ministers Association did not, calling it “an invasion of religious liberty.” Like President Theodore Roosevelt before the Association also “condemned the present practice of issuing coins with the words, ‘In God We Trust.’”

“In the long pull, democracy will overcome despotism by combining military strength, education and political idealism,” the Unitarian Ministers Association said. The Communist bloc fell in 1989. In June 1954 Congress approved adding the words ‘under God’ to the pledge of allegiance, a pledge made to ‘one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’” The legislation was signed on Flag Day, June 14.

Washington's Headquarters Flag
Washington’s Headquarters Flag

“Man everywhere is appalled by the prospect of atomic war,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower said. “In this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.” Teachers felt “the pressure to get religion into education.”

President William Howard Taft standardized the American Flag in 1912 and, to date, there have been 27 versions. Today’s version was unveiled in 1960, after Hawaii became the 50th State. George Washington’s Headquarters Flag will be on loan to Delaware’s Winterthur Museum on Flag Day, June 14th only.


Written by: Sarah Becker, © 2015
Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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