The Corner

Culture

Happy Flag Day

(Pixabay)

Thanksgiving is easily my favorite American holiday. But I think you could argue that the most American of the American holidays might well be the semi-official birthday of the flag we celebrate today.

Many countries have an independence day or some celebration of their founding or re-founding on the calendar. But no country celebrates its flag quite like we do. Our national anthem is basically a song about our flag. Millions of schoolchildren start each day by pledging allegiance “to the flag of the United States of America” even before they pledge it “to the republic for which it stands.”

We celebrate the flag on this particular day because it was on June 14, 1777, that the Continental Congress interrupted its urgent debates about the conduct of the war to pass a short resolution that read:

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.

No one seems to know whose idea this resolution was; we only know it passed quickly, and with no recorded debate. And it’s not entirely clear how this vague resolution led to the specific design and dimensions of our first flag (or whether it might have actually been a description of an already existing design). But the familiar 13-starred version was our flag until 1795, when Congress began its practice of adding stars (and at first also stripes) to recognize newly admitted states. In 1818, Congress passed a law returning the flag to its original 13 stripes, and requiring that a new star be added to recognize each new state — with the revised flag taking effect on the Fourth of July following that state’s admission to the union. And that is how we got the flag we know.

Its birthday hasn’t been celebrated from the start. Woodrow Wilson seems to have been the first president to issue a Flag Day proclamation, and Congress made it formal only in 1949, with another distinctly American move: They didn’t mandate a formal holiday (and Flag Day is not a formal holiday), but rather set in motion a series of suggestions. They passed a law requesting the president to annually issue a proclamation urging the public to observe the flag’s anniversary. It’s hard not to love our system of government.

And it does seem to me that in this moment in particular — a time when the question of the very nature of American patriotism and nationalism is much in the air — the flag can offer us one path through challenging terrain. The flag belongs to no party or faction but to all of us. And it belongs to us as a symbol. It’s not a document that makes an argument, but it’s also not the soil of the land or the blood of the people. It’s a symbol that lets us take in both the idea of America and the reality of it, both the history and its meaning, both the substance and the spirit.

In a speech delivered to Brooklyn’s 14th Regiment as it prepared to depart for battle in the Civil War in 1861, the great abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher told the soldiers to keep their eyes on their country’s flag for this reason. He concluded his remarks with some thoughts on what the symbol that is the flag actually symbolizes:

Our flag means, then, all that our fathers meant in the Revolutionary War; it means all that the Declaration of Independence meant; it means all that the Constitution of our people, organizing for justice, for liberty, and for happiness, meant. Our flag carries American ideas, American history and American feelings. Beginning with the Colonies, and coming down to our time, in its sacred heraldry, in its glorious insignia, it has gathered and stored chiefly this supreme idea: Divine right of liberty in man. Every color means liberty; every thread means liberty; every form of star and beam or stripe of light means liberty: not lawlessness, not license; but organized, institutional liberty, — liberty through law, and laws for liberty! . . .

Accept it, then, in all its fullness of meaning. It is not a painted rag. It is a whole national history. It is the Constitution. It is the government. It is the free people that stand in the government on the Constitution. Forget not what it means; and for the sake of its ideas, be true to your country’s flag.

Amen. And happy Flag Day.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

Most Popular

Culture

What We’ve Learned about Jussie Smollett

It’s been a few weeks since March 26, when all charges against Jussie Smollett were dropped and the actor declared that his version of events had been proven correct. How’s that going? Smollett’s celebrity defenders have gone quiet. His publicists and lawyers are dodging reporters. The @StandwithJussie ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Lessons of the Mueller Probe

Editor’s Note: The following is the written testimony submitted by Mr. McCarthy in connection with a hearing earlier today before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on the Mueller Report (specifically, the first volume of the report, which addresses Russia’s interference in the 2016 ... Read More
Elections

Kamala Harris Runs for Queen

I’m going to let you in on a secret about the 2020 presidential contest: Unless unforeseen circumstances lead to a true wave election, the legislative stakes will be extremely low. The odds are heavily stacked against Democrats’ retaking the Senate, and that means that even if a Democrat wins the White House, ... Read More
World

Why Are the Western Middle Classes So Angry?

What is going on with the unending Brexit drama, the aftershocks of Donald Trump’s election, and the “yellow vests” protests in France? What drives the growing estrangement of southern and eastern Europe from the European Union establishment? What fuels the anti-EU themes of recent European elections and ... Read More
Energy & Environment

The Climate Trap for Democrats

The more the climate debate changes, the more it stays the same. Polls show that the public is worried about climate change, but that doesn’t mean that it is any more ready to bear any burden or pay any price to combat it. If President Donald Trump claws his way to victory again in Pennsylvania and the ... Read More
White House

Sarah Sanders to Resign at End of June

Sarah Huckabee Sanders will resign from her position as White House press secretary at the end of the month, President Trump announced on Twitter Thursday afternoon. https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1139263782142787585 Sanders, the daughter of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, succeeded Sean ... Read More
Politics & Policy

But Why Is Guatemala Hungry?

I really, really don’t want to be on the “Nicolas Kristof Wrote Something Dumb” beat, but, Jiminy Cricket! Kristof has taken a trip to Guatemala, with a young woman from Arizona State University in tow. “My annual win-a-trip journey,” he writes. Reporting from Guatemala, he discovers that many ... Read More