Tradition of Veneration : Why Flag Case Stirred Such a Flap

Times Staff Writer

The 19th Century American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once marveled at the symbolic power of a national flag.

You take a star or a crescent or a lily or “other figure which came into credit God knows how” and put it on “an old rag of bunting,” he wrote. You let it blow “in the wind on a fort at the ends of the earth.” And the sight makes “the blood tingle” of even “the rudest or the most conventional” citizen.

The people, Emerson concluded, “are all poets and mystics.”

Poetry and mysticism help explain, this Fourth of July, the feverish debate that has embroiled the United States over the Supreme Court’s decision to permit flag burning as an expression of protest. President Bush himself has joined the fray, endorsing a constitutional amendment to overturn that decision.


‘Holy Icon’

To David I. Kertzer, an anthropologist who specializes in the use of ritual in politics, the uproar underlines Old Glory’s role as “a totem,” as “the holy icon of the American civil religion.”

Thus politicians of both parties--and Bush’s proposed constitutional amendment--use the word “desecration” to describe the burning of a flag. It is a religious word that means the defilement of something sacred.

That veneration has a long tradition in America. As Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist pointed out in his emotional dissent from the Supreme Court’s June 21 decision, the Washington lawyer Francis Scott Key wrote his poem “The Star Spangled Banner” during the war of 1812 after watching British warships fail through the night to force Ft. McHenry in Baltimore harbor to lower its flag and surrender.

More Intense

But historians say the veneration has become more intense--and certainly more codified into law--since the turn of the 20th Century, and especially after World War I.

“The flag has always been important to Americans,” says Michael Kazin, an American University historian. “But the creation of a lot of the rituals that we associate with the veneration of the flag came from that period. The Star Spangled Banner was not made the official national anthem until 1931.”

Kazin and other historians attribute the rising consciousness of that era to widespread uneasiness over the waves of non-English-speaking immigrants entering the country and to the fear of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

Until the American and French revolutions, most peoples did not care very much about their flags. Most banners around the world served mainly to identify armies in battle or royal families in power.

But the two bloody upheavals in the late 18th Century spawned flags that would symbolize and inspire new nations. The stars and stripes--designed in 1777 but probably not by Betsy Ross--and the blue, white and red tricolor put together a few days after the storming of the Bastille in 1789--are still among the most venerated flags on earth.

Two centuries later, nations and their flags have become inseparable. “With a flag, one can do anything,” wrote Theodore Herzl, the Austrian journalist who founded modern Zionism, “even lead a people into the promised land.”

Not all peoples respect their flag. Some Canadians sneer at theirs, a red maple leaf on a white background, as nothing more than an overblown bacon wrapper. Many Africans, more loyal to their tribe than their country, cannot identify their flags.

Protected by Law

Yet most peoples pay a good deal of homage to their flag, and a good number live in societies where the flag is protected by law from mutilation.

The British and Japanese flags enjoy no such protection, however, and even the French may burn their own tricolors with impunity. It is against the law in France to destroy, mutilate, degrade or pull down a flag put up by the French government, but no one has been prosecuted under this law since 1822.

The only country to rival democratic America and France in veneration of the flag is probably the Soviet Union. The red banner with its hammer and sickle is ubiquitous. Intentional destruction of the flag is punishable by imprisonment of up to two years in jail or enforced labor of up to a year or a fine of not more than the equivalent of $75.

“When I see our flag rippling in the breeze, my heart fills with pride,” a middle-aged Russian woman with an advanced degree in physics said in Moscow recently.

“It’s so automatic that even when I see the flag flying from a building where it always flies, I feel that way,” she said. " . . . When there are parades, like May Day or the Nov. 7 anniversary, and I see all the flags together, I feel that the whole nation is on the march.

“It’s all quite inexplicable when I talk about it abstractly like this, but that is what it means to be Russian, I guess.”

That much, at least, the United States and the Soviet Union have in common. Even the Supreme Court, in its June 21 decision, did not dispute the powerful national symbolism of the flag. Instead, they decided that the freedom of speech guaranteed in the American Bill of Rights gave dissidents the right to burn this symbol as an expression of protest.

Distinction Lost

That distinction has been lost on some of the critics, who denounce the decision as an attack on the flag itself. Asked about the court decision on “Meet the Press” Sunday, Adm. William J. Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that American military bases throughout the world were flying the flag and “we’re going to continue to fly it--legal or not.” Crowe seemed to be joking, but his joke missed the point of the court decision.

Throughout the rest of the world, the American Bill of Rights--the very document cited by the Supreme Court as protecting the right to burn the flag--is itself recognized as a symbol of American democracy. No other country on Earth offers so much protection for the rights of individuals and minorities.

“What sets us apart from others is the Bill of Rights: The State can’t tell us what to do,” says Kertzer, who teaches at Bowdoin College. “But the Bill of Rights is not really as powerful a symbol as the flag on the popular level. It does not have nearly the sacred status. It is too complex. It does not have a visual effect like the flag. And you can’t take it into battle.”

American literature and oratory brim with tributes to the flag. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, John Greenleaf Whittier and President Woodrow Wilson all left behind flowery quotations.

Sometimes the phrases fire up a jingoist mood. President Lyndon B. Johnson once quoted approvingly from an antique speech by a 19th-Century politician, Sen. George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts:

“I have seen the glories of art and architecture, and mountain and river; I have seen the sunset on the Jungfrau, and the full moon rise over Mt. Blanc,” Hoar declaimed in 1878. “But the fairest vision on which these eyes ever looked was the flag of my country in a foreign land.”

French Tributes

The tributes to the tricolor are just as full in the literature and oratory of France. Eugene Poitier, the author of the worldwide Communist anthem, the Internationale, also wrote a powerful song paying tribute to “the flag of liberty.” And one of the most humiliating moments in French history came at the end of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, when the victorious German troops burned the French flags at Metz.

But veneration of foreign flags has not always been wholesome. In “Mein Kampf,” Adolf Hitler wrote of the “almost childlike joy” he and his comrades felt when they put together the Nazi flag in 1920. They looked on it as “a flaming torch.”

Once Hitler had taken power, his rallies thundered with the exhilarated flapping of hundreds of enormous Nazi flags, captured in all their monstrosity by the documentary films of a Hitler favorite, Leni Riefenstahl.

Like religious symbols, the American flag has attracted a mythology, some of it rather fragile. The Betsy Ross story is an example.

According to the legend, George Washington and two other members of the Continental Congress went to the widow Ross’ upholstery shop in Philadelphia a month before the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. After looking at their design, she improved upon it and stitched together the first flag.

This story was first told in a paper read by her grandson before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania almost 100 years later. It was widely accepted then, but historians have since found no record of any commission of an American flag from Mrs. Ross. Records now show that the Continental Congress did not adopt a flag until June 14, 1777, and historians believe that Francis Hopkinson, an artist who was a member of the Congress, probably designed it.

There is little doubt that the carnage of the American Civil War fostered more images of men dying for their flag. But a good deal of doubt has been cast over the most famous Civil War flag story of all--the encounter of Barbara Fritchie and Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson in the city of Frederick, Md.

Whittier Poem

The story was described in a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier that Chief Justice Rehnquist quoted in full in his dissenting opinion in the flag-burning decision. According to the poem, Jackson’s soldiers, storming through Frederick, were shooting down all the stars and stripes they could find. But 90-year-old Barbara Fritchie snatched one flag under fire and waved it from her window. Whittier wrote:

“Shoot if you must, this old grey head,

But spare your country’s flag,” she said.

Her words, according to Whittier, stirred the nobler nature within Jackson:

“Who touches a hair of yon grey head

Dies like a dog! March on!” he said.

But in his book “I Rode With Stonewall,” Henry Kyd Douglas, an officer on Jackson’s staff, wrote that he and Jackson did not pass Barbara Fritchie’s house.

“There was an old woman of that name in Frederick in her 96th year and bedridden,” Douglas wrote. “She never saw Stonewall Jackson and he never saw her. I was with him every minute while he was in town and nothing like the patriotic incident so graphically described by Mr. Whittier in his poem ever occurred.”

The attempt to codify the veneration for the flag probably began with the writing of the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag by James B. Upham and Francis M. Bellamy in 1892. It was used at the opening of the World’s Fair in Chicago that year, the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America.

After the turn of the century, several Eastern states, worried about their large immigrant populations, began setting up citizenship programs for school children.

“They were originally aimed at immigrants but later at everyone,” said Kazin of American University. “By 1927, every state had citizenship programs for kids. They told them this is what the flag means. This is what Americanism means. They did not allow much room for alternative meanings.”

The legacy of these citizenship programs, Kazin believes, is Americans’ strong feelings about the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance.

Flag Day

Flag Day originated even before the Pledge of Allegiance. On June 14, 1885, a 19-year-old teacher in Waubeka, Wis., named Bernard Cigrand, the son of Luxembourg immigrants, assigned his students to write about the origin of the flag. June 14 was the anniversary of the Continental Congress resolution adopting the flag in 1777.

Cigrand later founded an organization promoting the idea of making Flag Day a national holiday. In 1916, a year before the United States entered World War I, President Wilson signed a proclamation setting aside June 14 as a national observance of Flag Day. In 1949, four years after the end of World War II, President Harry S. Truman signed a law making June 14 a national holiday. It is still, however, not a legal holiday that gives federal workers a day off.

The tensions of World War II demanded continual shows of patriotism. In 1942, Congress enacted into law the American Legion’s Flag Code, which laid down the rules for proper display of and respect for the flag. In case the flag was too damaged to use again, the code stated, it “should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.” That remains federal law today.

World War II also produced what is surely the most spectacular glorification ever of the symbolism of the American flag--the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Associated Press cameraman Joseph J. Rosenthal of five Marines hoisting the American flag on the summit of Mt. Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima after a battle that cost almost 6,000 American lives.

That photograph became the model for the Iwo Jima Memorial near Arlington National Cemetery. It was no accident that Bush stood in front of that monument last Friday to announce his support of a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s flag-burning decision.

Flag Burning

The Vietnam War generated flag-burning protests, and those in turn moved Congress to enact the Federal Flag Desecration Statute in 1967. House Armed Services Committee Chairman L. Mendel Rivers said “the burning of the flag . . . has caused my mail to increase 100% from the boys in Vietnam, writing and asking me what is going on in America.”

Various states, following the federal example, enacted anti-burning laws of their own. It was the Texas version of the law that the Supreme Court struck down in its June 21 decision.

Codification of respect for the flag has continued almost to the present. As recently as 1987, Congress designated John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” as the national march. Congress was simply catching up with the march’s popularity, just as it had when it designated The Star Spangled Banner as the national anthem in 1931.

Europe has no controversy similar to what is going on in the United States these days. But there is disquiet over the display of regional flags in various countries.

In Spain, for example, the Catalan and Basque peoples, brutally prevented by the late dictator Francisco Franco from flying their flags for 40 years, now fly them so brazenly that other Spaniards are annoyed. In the Soviet Union, Mikhail S. Gorbachev is suddenly facing myriad Lithuanian, Estonian, and Latvian flags--now that they can be flown without punishment. And he may face more from Armenia and Georgia soon.

These emotional displays in Europe lend weight to the theory that flags often become religious totems for different societies.

As Prof. Kertzer puts it in discussing the American controversy: “People are just so emotionally wrought over this that it is hard to explain it in any other way.”

Staff writers Michael Parks in Moscow, Janet Stobart in Rome, Rone Tempest in Paris, William Tuohy in Bonn and Tyler Marshall in London contributed to this report.