Discussion Questions for Book Groups, Middle and High School Teachers, College and University Instructors

Book Cover

  1. The American flag is, of course, a symbol, and thus open to many interpretations. What does the flag mean to you individually? What associations has it had throughout your life? Why were you motivated to read a biography of the American flag?
  2. Leepson makes it clear that Americans have a unique national commitment to the flag; other nations do not revere their flags as we do. What elements of the American experience have converged to make the flag particularly meaningful and important in the United States?
  3. One purpose of Flag: An American Biography is to explore the most significant and enduring myths about the American flag, including the stories that Betsy Ross designed and created the first flag and that ninety-five-year-old Barbara Frietschie triumphed in a confrontation over the flag with Stonewall Jackson in Frederick, Maryland, during the Civil War. The evidence for each myth is unconvincing -- the historical record provides more likely explanations -- but both stories have taken root in the popular imagination. Why are these stories so important to what we want to believe about the dominant symbol of our nation? In what ways are these two particular stories similar and different?
  4. One important theme of the American flag is its inclusiveness, from the growing number of stars to incorporate new states to its invitation to legions of immigrants to adopt this symbol of their new home. Leepson makes it clear that the flag has also been of great significance to generations of African Americans, who have seen it as a symbol of freedom and justice. Yet he also records how the flag has also been used by the Ku Klux Klan, nativists, and zealots to restrict freedom and justify forms of oppression. In what ways has the flag served as both a positive standard and a refuge for scoundrels?
  5. Emotional investment in the flag has been associated with military engagement: its genesis in the American Revolution, its emergence as a symbol of federal unity in the Civil War, its identification with national patriotism in the two World Wars, and its role as the central symbol of both the hawks and doves in the national debate over the war in Vietnam. In what ways has the flag been particularly meaningful to veterans, and what other special meanings does it have for immigrants, expatriates, and other groups?
  6. Many groups have attempted to co-opt the flag for their own purposes, and there has been a great deal of interest in enlisting the flag as a banner of political causes and commercialism. In what ways do both politicians and purveyors of goods use the flag today? Are these uses fair, part of a universal democratic access to our nation’s symbol? Or are these abuses that degrade the flag by using it to buy votes or sell products? What would you consider inappropriate uses of the flag?
  7. In a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1989, Justice William Brennan opposed punishment for the political demonstration of burning the flag. He wrote, “The flag’s deservedly cherished place in our community will be strengthened, not weakened, by our holding today. Our decision is a reaffirmation of the principles of freedom and inclusiveness that the flag best reflects, and of the conviction that our toleration of criticism … is a sign and source of our strength” (quoted on p. 236). Do you agree?
  8. In a relatively recent and bitter encounter over the flag, Republican George Herbert Walker Bush accused his Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis of a lack of patriotism over the flag. Bush’s position was attacked by some as a calculated appeal to patriotism, but Leepson’s book makes it clear that Bush was part of a long history of using the flag as a point of political focus. What did you think of this debate in 1989, and has reading Flag: An American Biography changed your opinion of this particular political moment?
  9. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the nation witnessed the resurgence of the flag as an affirming symbol of national unity and resolve, appearing throughout the nation in a spontaneous demonstration of grass-roots patriotism. What examples of the flag’s use do you remember from this time? How did the flag’s national role in this time of crisis affect you? Has the flag’s meaning continued to evolve and emerge during the American invasion of Iraq? What do you see in both the near and far future for the American flag?
  10. Leepson’s biography of the flag is comprehensive, drawing together many historical elements never contained in a single source. What about this biography did you find most surprising and engaging?

These discussion questions about Flag: An American Biography were created by Virginia educator Hunt Lyman, PhD.