This post was first published in 2005, but but I thought it fitting to republish in honor of Flag Day, which falls on Sunday.
The Stars and Stripes began its history as the symbol of thirteen distant colonies who picked a fight over principles that endure today, to paraphrase the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights like Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Some years later, Francis Scott Key immortalized what he called the “star spangled banner” as a symbol of perseverance and bravery.
It didn’t take long for another nation to acknowledge the Stars and Stripes as the symbol of a free and independent nation. In February 1778, John Paul Jones sailed into Quiberon Bay aboard the Ranger and received a 9-gun salute from the French fleet anchored there in return for the 13 guns fired from Ranger. It is fitting that Captain Jones was the first to accept this honor on America’s behalf, for he was also the first to force a foreign warship to strike her colors in deference to the spirit and determination of the colonies. It also seems odd in this time, reflecting on recent history, that the first acknowledgement of the ascendancy of America, and the most famous symbol of the great gift America gave the world, the Statue of Liberty, both came from France. Often, the most bitter of arguments arise between friends.
Like our great Nation, the flag has developed with us, and developed a symbolism all its own. As the years passed, a star was added for each new state that joined the Enterprise, and for a while a stripe was added, too. Eventually the number of stripes was fixed at thirteen in memory of those fragile, daring colonies, but stars continued to be added to proclaim the flood tide of freedom.
The symbolism of our flag has been often debated, but never wholly defined. It has been claimed that the red represents valor, zeal and fervency; the white, liberty, hope and purity; and the blue, loyalty, justice and truth. Perhaps the best interpreter was a man who helped forge the Nation our flag represents, one who was there when the Stars and Stripes were born, George Washington. He said, “[w]e take the stars from Heaven, the red from our mother country, separating it by white stripes, thus showing that we have separated from her, and the white stripes shall go down to posterity representing Liberty.”
Old Glory continues today to be the source of both inspiration and discord. Most see it as a symbol of home. Many see it as an icon of freedom and opportunity written in red, white and blue. A few look at the flag and only see the mistakes America has made in the pursuit of her ideals. And sadly, a growing number will remember the flag as the last blanket that comforted a lost son, father, sister or comrade-in-arms, or as a token from a grateful nation for performing the heavy lifting of democracy.
I have a flag of my own that I acquired on my first ship. It flew proudly from the mast as we launched strikes to push the army of Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. It flew again from another ship as we hurried to sea and prepared for war just hours after madmen murdered thousands of our countrymen in New York. Most recently, it flew from the yard of yet another warship as landing craft streamed ashore, carrying Marines bound for Najaf, determined to bring lasting freedom to victims of oppression. I do not know where and when mine will fly again, but it is my hope and prayer that a Star Spangled Banner will fly always, somewhere, reminding those who gaze upon it of our enduring virtues and infrequent vices. As Francis Scott Key wrote,
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines on the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner! O long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.