"Our flag carries American ideas, American history and American feelings. It is not a painted rag. It is a whole national history. It is the Constitution. It is the Government. It is the emblem of the sovereignty of the people. It is the NATION."

— Henry Ward Beecher, 1861

"Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore."

-- John Prine, 1969

Author Marc Leepson


Americans have a unique and special feeling for our flag. And that’s putting it mildly. This is not to diminish the respect and pride people in other nations feel for their national emblems. However, no country in the world can match the intensity of the American citizenry’s attachment to the fifty-star, thirteen-stripe Stars and Stripes, which is as familiar an American icon as any that has existed in the nation’s history.

Nowhere on Earth do citizens fly their national flags, as Americans do, everywhere they live and everywhere they go, from our front porches to our pickup trucks. The flag is a fixture in our nation’s schools, in our mass media, and in our advertising. The flag flies in front of our government buildings and business establishments of all types, including countless automobile dealer showrooms throughout the land that specialize in flying extra-large Stars and Stripes.

Nor does any nation turn to its flag as an emotional, political and patriotic symbol in good times and bad the way Americans do. We display the red-white-and-blue American flag at festive cultural and social events to celebrate and, at times of national tragedy, to grieve and show our resolve.

No nation displays its national flag as ubiquitously or as proudly as Americans do at sporting events, from local Little League fields to the Super Bowl. And no nation can match the widespread use of the American flag as a decorative part of countless items of apparel and accessories, from headbands to designer jewelry.

We Americans, alone among the nations of the world, have our schoolchildren pledge their allegiance to the flag, and we have done so for more than a century. Our National Anthem is a hymn of praise to our flag. Our largest veterans’ service organization, the American Legion, has had an Americanism Department since it was founded in 1919. It promotes the display of, and dispenses advice about, the proper use of the American flag. The second largest veterans’ group, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, similarly promotes the flag through its own Americanism Program.

The proper use of the flag itself is detailed in a one-of-a-kind document, the official U.S. Flag Code, a long, detailed set of rules which was developed at the instigation of the newly formed American Legion in the early 1920s. The code has been a federal statute since 1942.

No other country can boast of well-organized, well-funded non-profit nationwide organizations, such as the National Flag Foundation, the National Flag Day Foundation, and the Citizens Flag Alliance, which work full-time to promote respect for the nation’s flag. The latter organization lobbies exclusively for congressional passage of a Constitutional Amendment to protect the flag from desecration. Legislation calling for the Flag Desecration Amendment, which would be the 28th Amendment to the Constitution, has fallen short by just a handful of votes in recent years in Congress. 

The flag’s image has figured prominently in the national iconography since the War of 1812. Examples include the 1776 “Betsy Ross” 13-star flag, which has been memorialized in countless books and paintings and other widely disseminated images since 1870; the Star-Spangled Banner itself, which survived the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air in 1814 at Fort McHenry; the hoisting of the red, white and blue by six Marines atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima during World War II; and Neil Armstrong’s proud planting of the flag on the moon in 1969.

In recent years we have seen a damaged but intact American flag pulled from the debris of the World Trade Center following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack; the huge American flag unfurled by firefighters from the roof of the Pentagon on September 12; and the widely disseminated media moment of the Iraq War in 2003 when a U.S. Marine briefly placed a small American flag atop the face of a tumbling statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

Artists in every media have featured the American flag in their work, from folk artists to internationally renowned painters such as Jaspar Johns and Childe Hassam. The flag also has been lionized in countless songs, including George M. Cohan’s “You’re A Grand Old Flag” and the nation’s official national march, John Philip Souza’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” as well as poems, from the prosaic to the patriotic to the literary.

Tens of millions of Americans have served in the armed forces, and hundreds of thousands have given their lives in battle, for the flag. In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, the flag became an instant and widely used symbol of a nation united against terrorism as millions of Americans proudly and defiantly unfurled American flags in every corner of the country.

This unalloyed and unique feeling that Americans have for their flag is even more remarkable given the fact that the American flag’s origins are murky and that Americans labor under several widespread misunderstandings about our national emblem. We do not know for certain, for example, who designed the first flag. Nor is it known who made the first flag—the Betsy Ross story notwithstanding. There is no document setting out the meaning of the flag’s colors, even though pundits have promulgated their ideas about what the red, white and blue stand for since the 1780s. We know why the first flag had thirteen stars and thirteen stripes—to represent the original colonies. But no document exists explaining why the flag’s designers chose the stars and the stripes or why they picked red, white and blue as symbols for those colonies.

The current feelings of near religious reverence many Americans have for the flag, which some have dubbed the “cult of the flag,” date not from the Revolutionary War as is widely believed, but from 1861 and the start of the Civil War. Before the Civil War—for the first three-quarters of this nation’s history, in fact—it was not customary for private individuals to fly the American flag. Until 1861, the flag was flown almost exclusively at federal facilities and by the American military, primarily on U.S. Navy ships. Contrary to images promulgated well after the fact, the Continental Army did not fight under the Stars and Stripes against the British; George Washington’s troops displayed regimental flags.

It was not until the fall of Fort Sumter in 1861 that the American flag began to take on something approaching its current meaning to the American public. Soon after that fort fell to the Confederates, northerners began displaying the flag ubiquitously as a symbol of the fight to keep the union intact.

Another largely unknown factor in this equation is that the federal and state governments have not been the instigators in implementing the important milestones in the American flag’s evolution.  By and large it has been individual American businessmen, teachers, journalists, politicians and private organizations—primarily but not exclusively veterans’ groups and patriotic organizations—that have developed and pushed for many of the important changes in the evolution of the flag’s cultural importance. 

Those milestones include:

  • the push to make “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which was written in 1814, the official National Anthem, something that did not occur until 1931
  • the adoption of the Pledge of Allegiance, which was written by Francis Bellamy in 1892, but was not recognized by the federal government until 1942
  • the development of the Flag Code, which was put together primarily by the American Legion in 1920 and not made into law by the government until 1942
  • the national June 14th Flag Day commemoration, which was the brainchild of a Wisconsin school teacher in 1885, was pushed by the American Flag Day Association in 1895, but did not receive presidential sanction until 1949.

What is not widely known today, as well, is that from the time the Continental Congress passed legislation establishing the flag’s elements on June 14 (Flag Day) 1777, until June 24, 1912, there was no law setting out the exact order of the stars or the actual proportions of the flag. American flags during those 135 years often had different arrangements of the stars and differing proportions. Although most American flags had straight rows of stars and proportions similar to the official flag that was codified in 1912, the designs were left to the creative talents—and whims—of individual flag makers. And it wasn’t uncommon for people to stitch all manner of symbols and slogans onto flags.

 The question of why the American flag looms so large in the social, political and emotional hearts and minds of millions of Americans has several answers. The flag, of course, stands for everything that is admirable in America’s political history, especially our democratic form of government and the many freedoms Americans have enjoyed since 1776. It also has served as a unifying symbol for a relatively young nation made up predominantly of immigrants. And, it has been argued, the near religious fervor many accord to the flag derives from the fact that this nation has neither a state religion nor a royal family.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the acutely perceptive French aristocrat who visited these shores in 1831-32 and many of whose observations about this country ring true today, pointed to American democracy itself as the main force behind what he called Americans’ tendency to “feel extreme pleasure in exhibiting” our “recently acquired advantages.” People “living in democracies,” de Tocqueville said of an era when the American flag was rarely exhibited by individuals, “love their country just as they love themselves, and they transfer the habits of their private vanity to their vanity as a nation.”

Be it vanity, quiet pride or boastful patriotism, there is little doubt that Americans have a special feeling for the red, white, and blue. This book looks at what’s behind that special feeling by tracing the complete history of the American flag—it’s biography, so to speak. It examines the many changes in the American flag and the evolution of its cultural importance beginning in the Revolutionary War and ending with the flag’s prominent role as a symbol of American resolve in today’s war against terrorism. It also traces the look of the actual flags themselves, which—like the meanings attached to the flag—changed over time.

The American flag is an unwavering part of life for untold tens of millions of Americans. My hope is that what follows will shine an informing light on what has become the object of veneration for so many Americans, and the very visible symbol of this amazing nation.

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Read the Foreword to the book by Nelson DeMille