The Star Spangled Banner – Our Nation and Its Flag

The Star-Spangled Banner is the supreme symbol of the United States and the diverse people who call themselves Americans – their achievements, their goals, all that they hold true. Into this simple piece of cloth is woven the story of a nation. “Every wave of the flag is a pulse of history,” and evokes the full definition of patriotism and what it means to be an American:  our love of country, our responsibilities as citizens, our shared traditions and our ideals.

It is the lifeblood of our nation…the Star-Spangled Banner…Old Glory…the Stars and Stripes…the Red, White, and Blue…How does a piece of cloth come to hold such power?

The flag is the single symbol that bonds the diverse United States. It stands for the land and the people, the government, and the nation’s ideals. It embodies the heroism of Americans both famous and anonymous, our identity as a people, our dreams of the future.

Every wave of the flag is a pulse of history, a commemoration of multitudes of real, tangible, concrete events all melded into a single, grand, abstract concept: America. The American flag has been called the object of a national love affair and cited as the symbol of a civil religion. Indeed, some scholars claim that Americans feel a veneration for their flag far beyond that of citizens of any other nation. This observation would come as no surprise to most Americans. Even those who do not share the feeling are aware that the symbolism of the flag resonates throughout American life.

And Americans have not been shy about their civil religion, which endows our national symbol with religious significance. In 1864, as Abraham Lincoln placed Ulysses S. Grant at the head of the Union Army, a Pennsylvania patriot spoke of the American flag’s ‘sacred Past” and “Heaven-ordained Future.” In the autumn of 1917, as American troops rushed to France to support allied forces in World War I, the National Geographic magazine published a “Flag Number.” The issue, freely distributed to the thousand to the U.S. Army and Navy, opened with the statement that “the flag epitomizes for an army the high principles for which it strives in battle.” The text warns that the flag keeps ideals ever before the soldier. If it were not for the flag, the soldier “would be bestialized by slaughter.” The flag, said the magazine, keeps the fighting man “eager for personal sacrifice in the cause.”

Why does the flag have this power? Because, National Geographic Editor Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor asserted…its “origin is divinity itself.” Grosvenor is echoed almost a generation later, on the eve of World War II, by retired U.S. Army Col. James A. Moss, who cited the same source as Grosvenor: the Book of Genesis, 9:13, which describes the first flag. It was the firmament-wide, many-colored banner of the rainbow, which, God said to Noah, was “a token of a covenant between me and the earth.”

Americans follow the flag that waves at the head of a parade with a fervency akin to that in the hearts of marchers bearing holy icons in old Russia. In 1818, President-elect Andrew Jackson proclaimed that in a perfect democracy ”the voice of the people is the voice of God.”

Some 130 years later, writing from his Birmingham, AL jail cell, Martin Luther King, Jr., said that civil rights protesters were defending America’s “most sacred values…those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers.”  Sentiments such as these span our nation’s history and are part of what the flag represents.

It carries out image of ourselves as a chosen people, as inhabitants of what is still, in many ways, a brave new world. The idea of America as a utopia fired the imagination of European explorers. When they looked this way they saw a land that seemed, in the words of 16th-century French Huguernot colonizer Jean Ribaut, “the fairest, frutefullest and pleasantest of all the worlde.” The English seafarer Francis Drake, in the summer of 1579, found in California “a goodly country and fruitful soil, stored with many blessings fit for the use of man.” It was the search for such blessings – and for freedom – that drew the first settlers to the shores of North America. Today the same search bring to the United States immigrants who, as new citizens, pledge allegiance to the flag of red and white and blue.


By: Margaret Sedeen

National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.

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