This morning, Boy Scouts in our neighborhood posted flags in everyone’s yard, as they do on several national holidays year-round. Flying our nation’s flag is a favorite tradition of mine, growing up as I did with deeply patriotic grandparents, parents and siblings.
When I was young, we lived in the foothills near a small town, and a short walk from my grandma and grandpa’s home. Grandpa, a Navy ensign during World War II, put up a tall pole in his yard and flew a flag big enough that you could see it from the state highway in the valley. As grandchildren, we all knew where he stood as an advocate for our freedom and a warning voice on the importance of public and private virtue.
My dad loved the Betsy Ross flag, and my mother faithfully continues the tradition he started of flying that flag daily from her front porch. Each of my family members continues some kind of tradition around our nation’s flag, including a brother-in-law who serves in an Army unit responsible for official ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. The Stars and Stripes mean something beautiful and compelling to me, as I hope they do to you.
A piece of cloth doesn’t have such meaning by itself. The cloth gains and retains meaning as a symbol of important things, even sacrificial gifts. When you see the Stars and Stripes waving, what stirs within you? For me it symbolizes freedom, a gift from a Creator God, realized as the gift of room, opportunity and safety we pledge to each other as citizens and protect through our government. The flag represents our best aspirations as a people, and it calls us to live them more nobly today than yesterday. It symbolizes the last full measure of sacrifice given by so many brave men and women without whom we would not know the liberty we take for granted today.
Several books have shaped my appreciation for our flag, and the sacrifices it has motivated. I list a few here with an invitation to make an exploration of your own, by reading these titles or seeking out others (and I’m grateful for recommendations):
- Flag: An American Biography, by Marc Leepson – Leepson writes a well-researched, myth-busting narrative of how our flag developed, and how it has come to be used as a national symbol in ways that are unique among countries.
- John Adams, by David McCullough – The source material for a major miniseries of the same name, McCullough’s work makes the founding come alive through one of its essential and most colorful characters. I’ve read the book and watched the series and recommend them both, but my favorite version is the audiobook narrated by Edward Hermann, who seems to grasp John and Abigail Adams as though they were intimate friends. Hermann’s reading of McCullough’s nearly lyrical text is captivating, at times moving, humorous, curmudgeonly and reverent.
- Six Frigates, by Ian Toll – As a nation, we got off to a weak start on the global stage. Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution promised much, but equipped no warriors and protected no commerce. Toll tells the story of our early Navy, the startup that kept the American experiment in business. You’ll encounter familiar names like Decatur and Old Ironsides and see some predecessors of our current foreign challenges.
- Reminiscences, by Douglas MacArthur – General MacArthur was a larger-than-life person, with very visible strengths and weaknesses. This book, his autobiography, has its moments of defensiveness and bravado. But it is also a remarkable view into the patriotism that animated him – a patriotism built in him by his father, who served with great valor and distinction in the Civil War. The bond of father, son, country and Army is one of the great arches in the book.
- Ladies for Liberty, by John Blundell – A British patriot and adviser to Margaret Thatcher, Blundell may seem an unlikely person to call attention to notable women in our history. But this he does, with characteristic English wit and observation, compiling several short biographies of ladies as diverse as Sojourner Truth, Mercy Otis Warren and Clare Booth Luce, whose courage and entrepreneurship are truly inspirational.
We don’t cherish something we don’t notice, and freedom escapes our notice all too easily. True freedom isn’t always neat and tidy, reflecting our imperfections as humans as we think, speak, choose, earn, learn, buy and serve. But on this day, as on Memorial Day, Independence Day, Patriots’ Day and Veterans Day, it’s important to make it visible again, refreshing our knowledge of its source and price, so we can “secure [its] blessings to ourselves and our posterity.”