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A historian explains why the founding fathers would be baffled by conservatives’ obsession with flag worship

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Nothing seems more natural to an American than to venerate the patriotic symbols that represent America. They are virtually sacred. Scornful as we are of the candidate who wraps himself in the flag, it is often the candidate who fails to do so who loses.

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But if Americans cherish their symbols of patriotism, they haven’t always worshiped them. It used to be good enough just to respect them.

Take Old Glory, that “emblem of unity, of loyalty to home and to kindred, and to all that is sacred in life.” The early adoption of the flag by the United States has been considered proof of its early acceptance as a sacred symbol of the United States. But that seems not to have been the case. Milo Quaife, in his exhaustive history of the flag, concluded that the generation that gave us the national flag remained astonishingly indifferent to it.

From early congressional debates, for instance, it is quite clear that the only reason the founders adopted a national flag was for the practical reason that the navy needed one for identification when sailing into foreign ports. The bill providing for the establishment of the flag consisted of a single sentence, just twenty-nine words long. The first verse of the Star-Spangled Banner is longer (fifty-two words). When in 1794 someone introduced a bill to add two stars to the flag to take into account the admission into the union of Vermont and Kentucky, many members objected that the matter wasn’t worthy of their attention. It is “a trifling business,” said one, “which ought not to engross the attention of the House, when it was their ‘duty to discuss matters of infinitely greater importance.” The Vermont representative agreed. In the end, says Quaife, the members approved the bill “as the quickest way of terminating” debate about it.

The existence of great varieties of flag designs demonstrates the profound carelessness with which it was treated. Some stars came with five points, some with six. Some stars came in white, some came in silver. Because Congress never specified if the stars should be arranged in a circle or in rows, flag makers stitched them both ways. On the eve of the Civil War it became fashionable to put them in an oval. Even the number of stripes seems to have varied by whim, though it was established by law. At one point the flag over the capitol had eighteen stripes, while the flag over the New York Navy Yard had only nine. The flag is a particularly poor example of an early sacred symbol, as many Americans–including top government officials–were unsure of its appearance. More than a year after its adoption by Congress, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, in a joint letter to the king of Naples, said it “consists of thirteen stripes, alternately red, white and blue.”

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They may be forgiven for their ignorance. For Americans in our early history seldom got the chance to see the flag. It did not fly from buildings. It was not put in the schools. It was never reproduced in the newspapers. And painters did not make pictures of it.

Wilbur Zelinsky, reporting on a search of major catalogs of art from the Revolutionary War, says he could not find a single depiction of the American flag. The erroneous impression that Stars and Stripes was ubiquitous in the Revolution is due to the fact that it is ubiquitous in the paintings of the Revolution done in the nineteenth century. But the fact is, not a single land battle in the Revolution was fought under Old Glory. There was no American flag at Bunker Hill, at Trenton, or even at Yorktown. Indeed, not until the Mexican- American War did American soldiers fight under Old Glory. Even then the use of the flag in battle was limited. The marines did not adopt the flag until 1876; the U.S. Cavalry not until 1887. Forget those pictures of George Custer and the Stars and Stripes. His men never carried it. Soldiers did not go flagless, of course. They had battle flags to keep up their spirits. But nobody cares about those old battle flags. What we want is Washington crossing the Delaware with the Stars and Stripes. And what we want the artists in the nineteenth century gave us; pictures with flags sell.

Pictures counting more than words, it is likely we will forever think of the “boys on Bunker Hill” fighting under the flag John Trumbull put there in his famous painting of the battle. When we imagine stereotypical revolutionary soldiers, it is Archibald Willard’s depiction in The Spirit of ’76 that we think of. It features the flag and three haggard patriots, one playing a fife, the others beating drums. It is part of the myth of America and no more could be eliminated from our national memory than the Revolution it honors so sentimentally.

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Of America’s Revolutionary War heroes, only one fought under the Stars and Stripes, John Paul Jones, who has been the subject of endlessly silly stories. Biographer Augustus C. Buell, for example, claimed Jones’s flag aboard the Bonhomme Richard was sewn by a band of “dainty” girls “from slices of their best silk gowns”; one of the girls, Helen Seavey, was even said to have sacrificed her bridal dress to provide material for the stars. Actually, the story is as fanciful as Jones’s famous sea-battle boast that he had “not begun to fight.” And Helen Seavey never existed.

Better yet is the story of the flag’s eventual disposal. After disappearing from sight for some eighty years, late in the nineteenth century it was said to have suddenly resurfaced. Through a chain of miracles, it was said, the very flag that had flown over the Bonhomme Richard had survived and survived largely intact despite its use during several fierce battles. The only thing missing from the flag was a piece that supposedly had been given to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. The family that produced the flag–the Staffords–had an elaborate story to explain how they came into possession of it. In brief, they said it had been awarded by Congress to one of their ancestors, who had bravely served under Jones on the Bonhomme Richard and who saved the flag from destruction when the ship sank. And they had an affidavit to prove it. The affidavit, signed by the secretary of the Marine Committee of Congress, dated 1784, confirmed that one James Stafford had been given “Paul Jones’ Starry Flag of the Bon Homme Richd.” It was considered authentic for a long time. The Smithsonian Institution even put the flag on display. (It remained on display through the 1920s.)

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That was a mistake. By Jones’s own statement, we now know that the flag that flew over his ship was destroyed in the battle in which he lost the ship; a cannon blew it up. We also know that the Stafford affidavit was a hoax. James Stafford never served on the Bonhomme Richard, and the committee that supposedly awarded him possession of the flag in 1784 had ceased to exist five years earlier.

No doubt the founders would be pleased to see that the flag is respected today. But they would not understand it being worshiped. Worship of the flag is strictly a modern development. A hundred years or so ago only a few self-appointed flag defenders conceived of it as a sacred object. Schools were not required to fly the flag until 1890. Americans did not begin pledging allegiance to the flag until 1892. They did not begin saluting the flag until around the Spanish-American War in 1898. Flag Day was not nationally observed until 1916. The flag code, prescribing the proper way to treat a flag and dispose of it, was not approved by Congress until 1942 and did not become part of federal law until 1976. The interesting thing is not that the rituals of flag worship go back only as far as the late nineteenth century but that Americans think they go back further. We have become so used to the idea that the flag is a sacred object that we cannot imagine a time when it was not considered one. However, there was a time when patriotism needed no such artificial braces. During the Revolution, when men were fighting and dying on the battlefield to establish a new nation, saluting the flag would have been regarded as an empty gesture. The thing to do was to go out and join the fighting. That was patriotism.

If Americans did not embrace flag rituals early on, once they did, they embraced the practice enthusiastically. There seemed to be plenty of reason. With the invasion of the “hordes” of immigrants from Europe, hordes with strange names and exotic accents, it was believed that flag rituals were needed to ensure the newcomers’ loyalty. Fear, then, was behind the movement to adopt flag rituals, but nobody ever remembers that. Today it is the descendants of those “hordes” of immigrants who often seem the most offended by violators of the rituals. It is interesting to speculate what “the ethnics” (as the politicians refer to them) might think if Americans were taught to salute by extending their right hand, “palm up and slightly raised.” This proved embarrassingly similar to the Nazi salute, however, and during World War II was dropped. By order of Congress, Americans then began “saluting” the flag by crossing their right hand over their heart. (David R. Manwaring, Render unto Caesar: The Flag-Salute Controversy [1962], pp. 2-3.)

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Members of patriotic groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution so feared the immigrants that they began to embrace the British against whom their ancestors had once fought. One proposed making “an alliance of hearts if not of hands with our kinsmen over the sea.” After all, “We are of one tongue, one blood, one purpose.” Once the immigrants had been absorbed into the culture there should not have been much reason for retaining the rituals designed to Americanize the immigrants. But once invented, the rituals could not be eliminated. Every few years there seemed yet another compelling reason for keeping them. In World War I, they proved useful, as historian Bernard Weisberger has pointed out, in promoting “unity in the fight against the Kaiser.” Later, says Weisberger, they were used “to inoculate against Bolshevism.”

One cannot mention the flag, of course, without making reference to the story that it was Betsy Ross who stitched the first one. She did not, unfortunately. The whole story was made up by her grandson. Nor did she have anything to do with the selection of the flag’s design or its colors. If anybody was responsible for designing the flag it was probably Francis Hopkinson, who was given credit by Congress for having done so. But no one individual actually designed the flag. Our flag came about through two modifications of the British Union flag, which included a red, white, and blue cross in the corner square and a solid red field. Our first flag, commissioned for the navy in 1776, was simply the basic British Union flag divided by white stripes. Our second flag, the Stars and Stripes, substituted stars for the cross in the corner square. The red, white, and blue colors were derivative. They did not, as some allege, come out of Washington’s family crest. And they do not mean anything. Contrary to the Boy Scout Handbook, the blue in the flag does not represent justice, the white is not for purity, and the red is not for bravery.

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. This article is drawn from his book, ‘I Love Paul Revere Whether He Rode or Not’ (HarperCollins). His latest book is Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain. NOTE: This article was first published on HNN in 2006.

This article was originally published at History News Network

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