America is fortunate to have a rich portfolio of icons and rituals that help remind us of our past, and connect with each other in the present. As fixed as these things are in our mind, we sometimes forget that these have their own history, have changed in format and usage, and are more tradition than rigid civic dogma.
On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress resolved that the national flag of the United States include thirteen stripes, alternately red and white; with thirteen stars, white in a blue field, “representing a new constellation.” Flag Day is now observed on June 14 of each year. Initially, the specific layout of the flag was up to each flag maker. Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, designed the 1777 flag which became the basis for all subsequent official designs. (There is no documented evidence to the mythology that Betsey Ross made the first flag as requested by George Washington.) On April 4, 1818, Congress determined that a new star would continue to be added when each new state was admitted, but the number of stripes was fixed at 13 to honor the original 13 American colonies.
The song “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was the primary patriotic song during our Revolutionary War. But in 1813, Francis Scott Key wrote a poem commemorating the defense of Ft. McHenry in Baltimore from British bombardment. His brother-in-law used the poem as lyrics to a song by English composer John Stafford Smith. That poem and song became known as “The Star Spangled Banner.” In 1899, the US Navy officially adopted "The Star-Spangled Banner,” and in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that it be played at military and other appropriate occasions. In 1930, the Veterans of Foreign Wars started a petition to officially recognize the song as the national anthem; five million people signed the petition. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a bill officially adopting "The Star-Spangled Banner" as our national anthem – in spite of concerns about the song’s “singability.”
A Pledge of Allegiance was first composed in 1887 by Civil War veteran George Thatcher Balch, a teacher of patriotism in New York City schools. Balch's pledge was embraced by many schools, by the Daughters of the American Revolution, and by the Grand Army of the Republic. The basis for the Pledge we use today was composed in August 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and Christian Socialist. Bellamy’s Pledge was first published in the children's magazine The Youth Companion. A Columbus Day event honoring the flag was promoted by James Upham, a marketer for the magazine, and endorsed by the National Education Association. In June 1892, Congress and President Benjamin Harrison decreed that a flag ceremony and the new Pledge be the center of forthcoming October 12 Columbus Day 400th anniversary celebrations in public schools.
In 1923, a National Flag Conference of 68 organizations came together and created The United States Flag Code that established rules for display and care of the flag. This Code is a U.S. federal law, but the penalty for failure to comply is rarely enforced. That same Conference further called for the universal adoption of a modified Bellamy pledge. Congress officially recognized this Pledge on June 22, 1942 during WW II, but eliminated the “Bellamy salute” form of salute to the Flag. It was too similar to the Hitler salute that had developed in Nazi Germany, so the American salute was change to the current hand-over-the-heart position. The rules for saluting the flag are also codified in the United States Flag Code.
These icons and rituals, and their place in American life, has continually evolved over time. The playing of the “Star Spangled Banner” during the seventh inning stretch of Game One of the 1918 World Series between the Red Sox and Cubs is often cited as the first instance that the anthem was played at a baseball game. The tradition of performing the national anthem before every baseball game began in World War II as part of promoting patriotism for the war effort.
In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (“West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette”) that requiring the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. West Virginia had passed legislation requiring all students to perform the Pledge and Flag salute. Parents contended that the law infringed upon their religious beliefs, which they said required them not to engage in these secular practices. The Court stated that the key issues were the principles of freedom of thought and government by consent. The ruling declared that "no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."
In 1951, in the height of the Cold War / anti-Communist fervor, the Knights of Columbus Catholic organization began to include the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. The movement spread; Congress amended the Pledge accordingly; President Eisenhower signed the bill on Flag Day, June 14, 1954.
In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (“United States v. Eichman”) that prohibiting the burning the flag conflicts with the 1st Amendment right to freedom of speech and is unconstitutional. In 2008, wearing a flag lapel pin became a de facto requirement for all politicians, lest one be accused of not adequately demonstrate their patriotism in their campaigns. We now have Facebook postings calling for reciting the Pledge in classrooms (along with prayers from some never-defined religious source).
Why is this history and background important? Because when we begin to fight with each other about their use, and make them controversial merely for political manipulation and partisan gain, we need to remember how we came to these symbols in the first place. I grew up saying the Pledge every day in grade school. I doubt I suffered any damage from doing so. I am also not sure it made me any more American, because there was never any context given around that rote ritual. I suspect our current young people will turn out fine either way.
The kneeling before NFL games is a little trickier an issue, and has created much emotional controversy. This act of protest begun by Colin Kaepernick in 2016 was never about disrespecting our flag or our military – until Donald Trump inappropriately and incorrectly claimed it was. Rather, the kneeling was specifically to protest excessive police violence targeted toward African-American communities. One can choose to be on either side of that debate, but statistically and anecdotally it is a perfectly proper subject for attention and discussion.
Yes, a case can be made that an athlete’s right of free speech – if not obligation – entitles him/her to speak out on important social issues. However, such speech may legitimately be subject to timing and appropriateness. On game day, each player is an employee of a corporation. For any of us, “on company time and using employer resources” can be reasonable limitations to our right of free speech, requiring us to exercise our Free Speech Right in a more “public” venue on our own time. Then again, we might question why the National Anthem is being played at all at a for-profit commercial event – where the NFL charges our military for displaying its honor guard for the “presentation of the colors,” and where sports team owners seek to conflate sports with Americanism, and fandom with patriotism (e.g. “America’s pastime”).
The right of protest is fundamental to our American heritage, starting with the Boston Tea Party, the Stamp Act boycotts, and our Revolution itself. Protesting using our symbols of Americana as a focus may make us uncomfortable, but protests are about confronting uncomfortable truths. From that vantage point, kneeling to the music of our National Anthem, or abstaining from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, does not disdain our flag, military or country. In fact, it celebrates the gift from our military that protects our right, our Constitutional freedom, to redress our government and our Country for their shortcomings.
The kneeling issue, and the surrounding protests of the protests, call upon each of us to express our patriotism from a more personal and generous place within. We should not merely be puppets on a politician’s strings, letting ourselves be emotionally and intellectually manipulated in support of a false patriotism. We created our American icons and rituals by our choices. It behooves us not to let ourselves become captured nor ruled by them.
© 2018 Randy Bell www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com