“Resolved: that the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union by thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.”
- Journal of the Continental Congress, June 14, 1777
Every morning in my grade school we pledged allegiance to the flag, mumbled the Lord’s Prayer, and sang a patriotic song. Flag equaled country, sacrosanct, deserving of reverence. It wasn’t always that way.
The young republic in 1777 needed an identifying banner to raise on ships or carry into battle. More practical than emotive, the new flags didn’t fly in classrooms or outside private homes. Their mythic overtones came later, in response to current events.
Union loyalists flew the Stars and Stripes during the Civil War. Soon after, approaching the centennial, descendants claimed Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag. In the late 1800s, U.S. flags promoted the assimilation of immigrants. A Wisconsin schoolteacher is among many credited with starting Flag Day. A marketer created the Pledge of Allegiance to boost flag sales to schools.
Two world wars and the rise of godless Communism heightened the distinctively American “cult of the flag.” Presidents and Congress formalized Flag Day (1916, 1949), made “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem (1931), adopted the Pledge of Allegiance (1942), and added “under God” to the pledge (1954). Flags marked political discord in the 1960s, unity after 9/11, and polarization last January—surely not what the founders had in mind.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.