Friday, July 3, 2009

She's A Grand Old Flag

The single most visible symbol of America is her flag. From an intellectual viewpoint, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are the most important statements of what America was, is, and intends to be. But the flag represents that plus the true emotion felt by patriots past, present and future. The flag shown here is the first official thirteen star flag, even though the thirteen star flag with the stars arranged in a circle is usually thought of as the "first flag."

The earliest American flags were a multitude of patriotic and independence-minded sentiments. The defiant rattlesnake was very popular, and one version showed the snake cut in pieces with the initials of each colony above the segments entitled "join, or die." But the best-known is the "don't tread on me" flag with the rattler coiled to strike against the oppressor on a yellow background. Another version was among the first to use the alternating thirteen red and white stripes with the rattler stretched out across them.

The patriots originally considered themselves British subjects who were being treated unfairly, so even the first "American" flags used multiple versions of the red, white and blue of the English flag. One very popular early flag had the same future red and white stripes we are familiar with, but the space now containing the blue background with the white stars instead housed the British Union Jack. That flag was the first flag officially recognized by the Continental Congress as being the flag of "the independent colonies" within the British empire. It was first hoisted on January 1, 1776 as a sign of defiance to the British fleet which had just arrived in Boston Harbor. Ultimately, the red white and blue continued to dominate the flags which represented the colonies, early independence movements, and post-Declaration assertion of the complete break from the mother country.

The first legendary flag was the Betsy Ross flag. It had the stars in a circular pattern on a blue field, as Congress had ordered it from the famous seamstress, and George Washington personally intervened to make the six-point stars into five-point stars. The only problem is that there is no historical proof that this ever actually happened. There were several popular versions of the thirteen star, thirteen stripe flag, the "Betsy Ross" version being the most popular. But Congress ultimately decided on the stars arranged horizontally for future additions which would not change the basic pattern of the stars. And that became the flag pictured at the beginning of this column.

The Star Spangled Banner flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor during the War of 1812. By that time, Congress had begun to recognize that if a new star and a new stripe were added each time a new state entered the Union (there were fifteen states by then), the stripes would become unmanageable. At that point, it was determined that only stars would be added, and the original thirteen stripes would be maintained to represent the thirteen original states. That huge flag was the one that Francis Scott Key saw flying in the rockets' red glare and the dawn's early light during the British assault on Fort McHenry. He wrote his poem praising the flag, it was set to the tune of "Ode to Anacreon in Heaven," and over a hundred years later, it became our national anthem.

In 1854, Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Harbor to open the first official diplomatic relations between Japan and America. He was flying the thirty-six star flag. What many people do not know is that when General McArthur accepted the Japanese surrender in 1945, he ordered Perry's flag to be flown on the USS Missouri where the treaty was signed.

During the Civil War, Congress would not recognize the rebellion as being a dissolution of the Union, and maintained the stars of all the states, including those states which had seceded, on the flag of the United States. The Confederacy at first adopted a similar flag, with only the Confederate States represented in the blue field, but quickly realized it could easily be confused with the Union flag in the heat of battle. Thus was born the famous "stars and bars." Teddy Roosevelt carried a forty-five star flag up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American war, and for the first time, the American flag flew over territory not on the North American mainland.

The forty-eight star flag under which I was born flew over America in war and peace through the Great Depression, the First and Second World Wars and the Korean Conflict. Alaska and Hawaii became the first two (and only) non-contiguous states in the Union in the latter part of the 1950s and when their two stars were added, we had the flag we fly today.

I place the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution on my shelf right next to the Bible in importance. They have a deep and profound influence on all my thinking. But the sight of Old Glory flying and the sound of the The Star Spangled Banner get my heart pounding and my pride in America showing. Maybe it's my inner feelings that say that the two documents represent America, but that wonderful flag represents Americans, the beneficiaries of those documents. It represents freedom and a free people in a way that no other flag in the world can.

For our fighting men and women overseas, let me add the last stanza of the Star Spangled Banner. Have a great Fourth of July:

Oh! Thus be it ever, when free men shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation;
Bles't with victory and peace may the Heavn' 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 is our trust."
And the Star Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.


Mike Kriskey said...

I'm probably the least sentimental person I know, but when I see our flag snapping in a stiff breeze I get goosebumps.

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, I agree. To me, the flag is the symbol that represents all of the people who have fought and sacrificed for this country. It has always held a special place in our hearts and I hope it always will.

Unknown said...

Mike and Andrew: I've been called a cold fish more than once in my life (not by my family). I tend to be very analytical. But like you, I am at times almost overwhelmed on occasions where the flag is being saluted and the Star Spangled Banner is being played. I'm glad to know that I have friends who have the same emotional reaction. The sight of a soldier saluting the flag during Taps is nearly unbearable.

CrisD said...

When I was a kid in the sixties and watched what they did with the flag I knew something was very wrong with the left.

Beautiful tribute, thanks for all you do. Happy 4th!

StanH said...

I’m with you guys, I went to a Tea Party in north metro Atlanta last evening (seven to eight thousand showed up by the way, wow) They had a bag piper play, “America the Beautiful,” and he made a transition in to the, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and without hesitation a couple hundred Marines in this crowd stood up at attention and with the American flags popping in the wind was an emotional profound moment for me and all of the attendees at the Tea Party. In and amongst the crowd were all of the flags you discussed especially the yellow background with the coiled Rattlesnake, “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Writer X said...

There's nothing more beautiful. Thanks again for the history.

USArtguy said...

Well said LawhawkSF. Thanks for reminding us of some of the history behind Old Glory.

"The forty-eight star flag" under which you were born reminded me of fellow native son of Indiana, Red Skelton and his pledge of allegiance.

Watch Red here:

Audio and words here:

If the links don't work just google Red Skelton Pledge

patti said...

when i see a flag my mind goes to the sacrifice of those who have willingly fought for our freedom. god bless america.

JG said...

The last verse is my favorite, as well. :) Beautiful sentiment, LawHawk.

Unknown said...

CrisD: As Andrew and I have mentioned in past articles, I was a Berkeley Berzerker at the height of the anti-war movement in the Sixties. But my fellow lefties knew there was one thing I wouldn't tolerate in my presence, and that was the willful mishandling of or disrespect for the flag. Even during that insane period I couldn't shake off my basic love of my country and it's grand old flag.

StanH: Our current "leader" doesn't feel what we feel. He wouldn't even put his hand on his heart during the Pledge. He should listen to one of the lines of the Battle Hymn and recognize what he faces as he gets older: "He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat--He is sifting out the souls of men before the Judgment Seat."

Unknown said...

USArtguy: Thanks a million for that link! It seems it was broken for direct viewing, but all I had to do was then search Red Skelton and it was the first video on the menu.

I saw that piece when I was a kid, and I was amazed to see now that it was actually filmed in color (who had color TV then?). Red Skelton was a true and emotional patriot. If there were more teachers like "Mr. Laswell," we would all be a lot better off. I had also forgotten that it was filmed just around the time that "under God" was added to the Pledge. As Mr. Laswell explained to the kids about the Pledge: "A republic is a government where power flows from the people to the leaders, not from the leaders to the people." Great stuff, and I recommend that everyone take a few minutes of their time and watch it today--the perfect day to do so.

Viewers should pay particular attention to Mr. Laswell's worry: "Wouldn't it be a shame if somebody decided that those two words ('under God') were a prayer, and then decided they had to be taken out of the schools?" Skelton (and Mr. Laswell) saw the future, and were saddened by it.

Unknown said...

Patti and WriterX: I have the flag properly displayed in my library all year 'round. On appropriate days, like today, I run it out on a horizontal flagpole from my balcony. Amazingly, even here in San Francisco, I have never had a negative comment from any of the neighbors.

JG: I agree, and I am also touched by the second and third verses of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Most people are familiar only with the first and fourth, and that's a good thing. Of course today you rarely hear the fourth verse at public events, since it refers to Christ, and concludes "As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free."

StanH said...

As small correction to my post it was the “Marine Hymn” when the Marines popped up most impressive and emotional.

Unknown said...

StanH: I didn't see the clip, but your point is right either way. Marines know what's right.

CrisD said...

Hey LawHawk,

Even the current and former pope were a big part of Vatican II !

Your much younger friend ;^) ,

Unknown said...

CrisD: With age, comes wisdom,or at least that's what I keep telling my kids and grandkids. Unfortunately, it seems they think that with age comes senility. Oh, well.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"But the sight[Photo] of Old Glory flying and the sound of the The Star Spangled Banner get my heart pounding and my pride in America showing. Maybe it's my inner feelings that say that the two documents represent America, but that wonderful flag represents Americans, the beneficiaries of those documents. It represents freedom and a free people in a way that no other flag in the world can."

Well said, Lawhawk! Thanks for the refreshing refresher of Old Glory. :^)

Red Skelton was a great patriot and hilarious comedian. He's the only clown I can recall that was genuinely and consistently funny. His movies never get old, and now more of his shows are being made available through netflix.

Unknown said...

USSBen: I actually got to see Red Skelton filming one of his shows in the early fifties at CBS Television City. He actually went up into the bleachers to say hi to people, and my mom was in seventh heaven when he singled her out. He was a great guy, but he did come from the vaudeville/burlesque background, so he could get a bit off-color, but unlike today, a kid (like me) wouldn't get the references anyway.

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