What is the Flag?

In this original blog post, Arnaldo Testi, author of Capture the Flag: The Stars and Stripes in American History, discusses four very different encounters with the Stars and Stripes.

In a recent visit to New York, I was struck again by the presence of the Stars and Stripes in the public arena. And I do not mean the ceremonial flag hoisted on public buildings or commercial venues (that’s a matter of routine), but the political flag waved to make a variety of political statements, including militant ones, often at odds with each other.


The first encounter was of historical nature. A New-York Historical Society exhibition on “Lincoln and New York” (now over) was, not surprisingly, replete with Civil-War era red, white, and blue memorabilia: party posters, recruitment ads, Emancipation Proclamation reproductions, prints and photographs of patriotic parades and marching militias, real textile flags.

Among them were a couple of beautiful stereoscopic views of a large crowd in April 1861. It was one of the first popular demonstrations (of emotion, grief, and anger) centered around a flag fetish: the flag of Fort Sumter, which had just escaped the Southern cannons and was now raised over the statue of George Washington in Union Square.

The Civil War is indeed at the origin of the sacralization of the national flag, of its rhetorical transformation from an official instrument for designating territory and authority into an object of people’s veneration. This veneration is assumed to be so deeply ingrained that it should inspire citizens to shed their blood in battle, while following or defending the colors.

And yet, as the exhibit showed, at the time of its sacralization the Stars and Stripes had turned into a partisan political symbol, the symbol of the North and the Union party. In the name of the country’s common revolutionary heritage, it had become a battle flag for change – to change things which were part and parcel of that heritage, states’ rights and slavery, and to build a new nation.


In the news, I found other militant Stars and Stripes. The Tea Party flags are a reminder of the belief that, as President Obama said, “the American Revolution did not end when British guns fell silent. [It] was – and remains – an ongoing struggle in the minds and hearts of the people to live up to our founding creed.” To quote here Mr. Obama is ironic but appropriate: the struggle is on what exactly the founding creed means.

The Tea Party flags are the first Stars and Stripes, when the stars numbered 13 and were arranged in a circle. They evoke the Spirit of ‘76 and a second American Revolution. They go hand in hand with other revolutionary emblems, like the more aggressive “Don’t Tread on Me” banner. And they claim to represent the original constitutional principles of liberty, limited federal government and 10th-Amendtment states’ powers.

Their claims are not a fantasy, those principles can be found in the founding text. Like other movements in American history, the Tea Partiers think that the country has deviated from the right path and want to redeem it by starting anew. Like many movements all over the world, rooted in revolutionary traditions or fundamentalisms of any faith, they preach a return to the primal, uncorrupted Word as a response to the deceit they perceive around them.

But those principles are not the only truth. Revolutions are promises of many different worlds, and revolutionary flags reflect their multiple meanings. An infant Coffee Party movement is trying to emerge embracing the opposite idea: that the federal government is not the enemy of the people, but the expression of its collective will. And they too trace this idea back to the Constitution, and rightly so. Their coffee cup is wrapped up in the national colors – is it the same flag as the Tea Partiers’? Or a different one?


Back at the New-York Historical Society, I saw Jerry Garcia’s giant Stars and Stripes. It belongs to an exhibition (still going on) about the Grateful Dead, whose logos and album covers were soaked in red, white and blue. Like other rock bands of their generation, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they used the national colors partly as a merchandising gimmick and partly as cultural mockery and political protest.

The message that they convey is, in fact, familiar: the United States is an essentially good place which has lost its way. Which kind of country the U.S. should be, and what meaning the Stars and Stripes should have, is another story, not for them to tell. In the Grateful Dead song “U.S. Blues” (1974), the closing verses are non committal: “We’re all confused, what’s to lose? / … / Wave that flag, wave it wide and high. / Summertime done, come and gone, my, oh, my.”

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