What does the American flag stand for?
Americans today seem very much in the holiday spirit with Flag Day just past and the Fourth of July coming up. Since the attacks on our country last September, it has been wonderful to see the flag flying almost everywhere. This is certainly a welcome change from the condescension with which cultural elites and opinion leaders have frequently viewed "flag waving" in modern America.
Officially created on June 14, 1777 by an act of the Second Continental Congress, the American Flag underwent many modifications until 1912, when President Taft established standard proportions for it and ordered that the stars be displayed in rows. The Flag Day holiday was established formally by a proclamation of President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, and cemented into law when President Truman signed an act of Congress in 1949.
To remind ourselves of the ideas represented in the flag, the proximity of Flag Day and the Fourth of July cannot be mere coincidence. It was the same Continental Congress, after all, that both signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4th and subsequently created the flag. The Declaration clearly laid out the principles to which the new nation would forever be dedicated: a protection of the individual rights of citizens to life, liberty, and security in their private property. It was out of dedication to securing these rights that the federal government was established, and out of concern for maintaining these rights that government was strictly limited in scope.
George Washington understood these principles well, and knew what his army was fighting for when he addressed his Revolutionary War troops with these words in 1776.
"Remember officers and soldiers, that you are freemen, fighting for the blessings of liberty - that slavery will be your portion, and that of your posterity, if you do not acquit yourselves like men."
Do we 21st century Americans know what we are fighting for? Have we acquitted ourselves like the men Washington addressed? The current national political scene makes it difficult to answer in the affirmative, regardless of which side of the political spectrum one examines.
Liberals have for decades advocated - and largely consummated - a rejection of the limited government of the founding in favor of a modern welfare state. Starting about 100 years ago, progressives like Woodrow Wilson decided that the Declaration and Constitution were "out of date," and inaugurated the idea of a constantly evolving, unlimited government. This makes it all the more ironic that it was Wilson who formally established Flag Day - since he mocked what he called the "blind worship" of the founding and complained that "some citizens of this country have never got beyond the Declaration of Independence."
Likewise, today's conservatives have cause to question how they have acquitted themselves - perhaps even more than liberals, since conservatives are supposedly dedicated to "conserving" America's principles. Prominent conservative leaders today have essentially abandoned the aims of their counterparts in the 1980s and early 1990s to scale back the modern state.
Gone is talk of eliminating those portions of the federal bureaucracy created to implement the failed policies of 1960s and 1970s liberalism. Instead, Republicans today push through historic increases in funding for the Department of Education.
Even the current strategies in the war on terrorism, unfortunately, make one wonder whether the government is more interested in curtailing the rights of its own citizens or in taking the fight abroad, to those regimes that hate us and sponsor those attacking us. Our conservative administration makes plans for a new federal bureaucracy of "homeland security," while it shies away from making real war on terrorist regimes out of fear of offending our "friends" in the Arab world and governments in Europe.
Throughout our history, brave Americans in both the military and in politics have fought mightily to prove themselves worthy of Washington, the men he addressed, and the principles for which they battled.
Let this Flag Day and Fourth of July be a spark for those of us in the 21st century to continue in that noble tradition.