“The things that the flag stands for were created by the experiences of a great people. Everything that it stands for was written by their lives. The flag is the embodiment not of sentiment, but of history.” — U.S. President Woodrow T. Wilson
Starting out as a confusing array of flag designs and shapes, the Stars and Stripes is a revered emblem of the United States for veterans and civilians alike.
The American Revolution (1775 – 1784) had an estimated 290,000 participants and 4,000 deaths. The last veteran of this war was Daniel F. Bakeman, who died April 5, 1869, at age 109.
Fast-forward about 200 years to the Vietnam War (1964 – 1975), which had some 9.2 million participants and 109,000 deaths in service.
Despite the span of more than 200 years and the great difference in number of participants, one thing was constant: The Stars and Stripes was a symbol of veterans’ service and a continuing testimony that their service was worthwhile — and “Old Glory” remains so today.
“Our nation reveres the flag, not out of a sense of unquestioning worship but out of a deep sense of our national heritage,” reads a statement on the DAV website (dav.org). “The flag reflects America’s pledge to uphold democracy and work for peace throughout the world …. The flag … represents all people of America.”
Since many flags of early America contained stripes in their design and several others had stars, there are varying accounts of when and where the first Stars and Stripes was flown. Flag history experts agree, however, that the first Stars and Stripes flag to have the general form we recognize today did not appear until summer 1777, when the Continental Congress formally resolved “That the flag of the United States be 13 stripes, alternate red and white, that the union be 13 white stars in a blue field representing a new constellation.”
America’s first president, George Washington, reportedly said, “We take the stars from heaven; the red from our mother country, separating it by white stripes, thus showing that we have separated from her; and the white stripes shall go down to posterity, representing our liberty.”
Congress did not specify the arrangement or shape of the stars, the direction of the stripes, or the relative size of the various components. As a result, military units and the civilian public alike flew a confusing array of local, state and homemade interpretations of the congressional flag description.
Not until 1912 was the flag finally assured a uniform appearance, when U.S. President Robert Taft signed an executive order prescribing the relative size, shape and positioning of the flag’s components.
Flying the Flag
A subject of almost as much debate as the shape and design of the flag has been the question of how and when to display the Stars and Stripes.
On Flag Day, June 14, 1923, representatives of 69 patriotic, fraternal, civic and military organizations met in Washington, D.C., to draft a code of flag etiquette. The 77th Congress adopted this codification of rules as public law on June 22, 1942. Since 1942, when the law was first enacted to govern actual display of the flag, the guiding statement has been that the flag should be flown on “days when weather permits.” The generally accepted interpretation was that the colors could be shown only between sunrise and sundown — and, even then, not during inclement weather.
Growing sentiment that “Old Glory” should be kept flying despite darkness and foul weather culminated in 1976, when President Gerald Ford signed legislation providing that: “When a patriotic effect is desired, the flag may be displayed twenty-four hours a day if properly illuminated during the house of darkness.” The new law also permits the Stars and Stripes to remain flying through inclement weather if it is made of all-weather material.
To date there are no penalties for Flag Code infractions or physically desecrating the American flag. According to ushistory.org, the Flag Code serves as only a guide for private citizens to follow on a purely voluntary basis to ensure proper respect for the flag. The Code has no provision for enforcement — no fines, no penalties. Law enforcement has no recourse when the Flag Code is broken.
Texas v. Johnson (1989) was an important decision by the Supreme Court of the United States that invalidated prohibitions on desecrating the American flag enforced in 48 of the 50 states. Justice William Brennan wrote for a five-justice majority in holding that the flag-burning by Gregory Lee Johnson was protected speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Supreme Court said, “We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents.”
But members of the Citizens Flag Alliance (cfa-inc.org), incorporated in June 1994, advocate a constitutional amendment to protect the flag from physical desecration. Some 3 million people have signed petitions asking Congress to pass a flag-protection amendment and send it to the states for ratification, according to the CFA website.
More than 140 organizations reportedly have joined CFA since its incorporation: ethnic groups, community-based fraternal and veterans organizations, women’s groups, businesses and many more.
So, on Memorial Day, Flag Day, July Fourth, Veterans Day or whenever you proudly fly the American flag, remember how “Old Glory” came to be — and treat it with honor and respect.