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Beyond Betsy Ross: civics lessons from the history of the U.S. flag

Written by Derek Monson

June 17, 2022

The history of the American flag tells us that: (1) The American flag is a symbol of unity rising above what divides us, and (2) the flag itself is not more important than the ideas that it represents.

The flag represents American unity rising above all

The origins of the American flag’s design – the Stars and Stripes – date back to the Revolutionary War. Soon after war broke out between the British empire and its American colonies, the colonies sought to distinguish America from its British parent. They adopted the “Continental Colors” – 13 alternating red and white stripes with a Union Jack (the design on the British flag) in the upper left corner. This original design was adopted as a “compromise between the [American] radicals who wanted to see a separate nation and the people who were more conciliatory and wanted to see some accommodation with the crown.”

However, it was soon thought to be a mistake for America and its armed forces to fly a flag that so resembled the British flag. So, in 1777, the Continental Congress passed an act that created an official “flag of the United States” to include 13 alternating red and white stripes and 13 white stars in a blue field “representing a new constellation.”

The historic origins of the flag illustrate how it has always been a symbol of unity – among the colonies as a new nation, and among the American people against their British enemies in war. The values symbolized by the colors of the flag are also a unifying force. Red represents hardiness and valor, white symbolizes purity and innocence, and blue means vigilance, perseverance and justice – human values that rise above partisan rancor, ideological polarization, and other forms of division.

Additionally, when the American flag is displayed with other flags, it is always given the highest position, or the position of honor – symbolizing the unity of the nation rising above or being honored before other symbols or representations.

In short, despite the attempts on the extreme right and extreme left to use or abuse it for divisive ends, the American flag still stands for the unity of American citizens.

The ideas that the flag represents are of utmost importance

The ideas that the American flag stands for and the sacrifice in life and treasure that countless men and women have made for those ideas make the flag a sacred part of “America’s civil religion.” But those ideas are even more important than the flag itself.

In 1942, the state board of education in West Virginia mandated that students participate in daily salutes to the American flag, including the Pledge of Allegiance. Students from a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to do so, based on their religious principles, and were subsequently expelled from their school. The family sued, and in 1943 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the family’s free speech rights under the Constitution meant that they could not be compelled to participate in pledging allegiance to the American flag.

By ruling that it was unconstitutional to compel American citizens to pledge allegiance to the flag, the court bolstered the ideas of freedom that the American flag stands for. This case paints a picture of how and why the American ideas of life, liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness – enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and protected by the U.S. Constitution – rise above even the flag in importance. If respecting the flag means abandoning America’s fundamental civic ideas, we end up failing to respect the flag after all – by disrespecting what the flag stands for.

Conclusion

No use or abuse of the flag can take the truth of what it stands for away from a citizen who learns about the history of the American flag and is inspired by what that history says it represents. We can only give it away by our failure to understand the flag.

So as the season of patriotism – from Memorial Day to Flag Day to Juneteenth to Independence Day – continues, remember and reflect on the unity that the flag inspires in the hearts and minds of American patriots everywhere – no matter their partisan affiliation, ideological framework or other identity. The flag is a symbol of American unity to those who understand its history and meaning. It represents America’s most cherished and broadly shared governing ideas and civic values.

And those things are worth, at the very least, a holiday each year.

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