Alexander's Column

Flag Day — What Do You See?

The Banner of Liberty

The real history and significance of the most famous banner of Liberty ever flown.

Mark Alexander · Jun. 10, 2015

“Let us then … under God, trust our cause to our swords.” –Samuel Adams (1776)

What do you think of when you see an American flag? Consider, for a moment, its origin, and let me tell you the images it evokes for me.

Perhaps the most iconic flag associated with the heritage of American Liberty is that attributed in 1876, the centennial of the Declaration of Independence signing, to the hand of Betsy Ross. It featured 13 stars arranged in a circle within a blue union field, and with 13 red and white stripes. That flag, however, was most likely produced late into the Revolutionary War, and not by Betsy Ross.

Among the earliest examples of Revolutionary-era flags are those depicted by painter John Trumbull. He was an officer at the Battle of Bunker Hill, was appointed in 1776 as Second Personal Aide to General George Washington, and later Deputy Adjutant-General to General Horatio Gates. He is most noted for his 1792 portrait of Washington before the Battle of Trenton and his 1817 “Declaration of Independence,” a painting of the Signers depicted at the convention.

The flags in Trumbull’s 18th-century paintings of the Battle of Princeton (1777), the Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga (1777) and the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown (1781) all depict 13 stars within the blue field, 12 arranged in a square with the 13th in the center.

But the earliest flag widely associated with the Revolution was the 1775 Gadsden, with its yellow field depicting a coiled rattlesnake ready to strike and the words “DONT TREAD ON ME” beneath the serpent. Of course, that’s also the flag that today embodies the Second Tea Party Revolt, which, in 2010, launched a great awakening of pride in our American heritage and a revitalized devotion to American Liberty. This flag has its origin with Continental Colonel Christopher Gadsden, and it flew over the earliest actions by the Continental Navy and Marines — and inspired the Navy Jack still flown in the fleet today.

Gadsden’s flag was likely inspired by a plate published by Benjamin Franklin in 1754 featuring an image of a snake cut into sections representing the Colonies, over the words “JOIN, or DIE,” an appeal for unity during the French and Indian War.

The Second Continental Congress passed its flag resolution on June 14, 1777: “Resolved, that the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” On that same day, it authorized the first riflemen for the Continental Army. The next day George Washington was appointed to lead that Army. The flag most likely referenced in that resolution was that designed by Declaration signer Francis Hopkinson, featuring six-pointed stars arranged in rows. It flew first over the battle of Fort Schuyler on August 3, 1777.

Until victory in 1783, under that flag and similar banners, the first American Patriots would defend the young nation against what seemed to be insurmountable odds.

It was during a second conflict with the British, the War of 1812, that our national flag, flying over Fort McHenry above Baltimore harbor, inspired Francis Scott Key to pen what is now our National Anthem.

In 1814, James Madison authorized Key and John Stuart Skinner to seek an agreement with the British to secure an exchange of prisoners. Under a flag of truce, Key and Skinner met with Major General Robert Ross and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane aboard the HMS Tonnant. However, while onboard, Key and Skinner learned of British plans to attack Baltimore and thus were held captive.

From his vantage point onboard, Key was able to observe at the end of the first day of that campaign that Fort McHenry’s “storm flag” was still flying into the night. He didn’t know if his fellow Patriots had withstood the assault until, by the dawn’s early light, he saw that a much larger American flag (made of fine English wool) had been raised victoriously over the fort.

On that day, Key, an amateur poet, penned “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” later put to music as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and formally recognized in 1931 as our National Anthem.

While the first verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is familiar to most Americans, it is the fourth and final verse that speaks most directly to the humbling legacy of American Patriots, who have stood in harm’s way since the earliest skirmishes of the American Revolution:

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

“In God is our trust” was shortened to “In God We Trust” and first appeared on U.S. coins in 1864. In 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed it into law as our National Motto. Seven years earlier, President Harry Truman signed the National Flag Day law.

Today, patriotic Americans recognize “In God We Trust” as the keystone of our Liberty and the Unalienable Rights of Man as endowed by our Creator.

So, what awakens in me today when I see an American flag?

I recall the hundreds of thousands of flags at headstones in Arlington National Cemetery and others around the nation — and at numerous memorial sites in Europe at the final resting places of American liberators of WWI and WWII. I think of flags at half mast to honor a Patriot; the raising of our flag over bloody Iwo Jima by U.S. Marines in 1945; of American flags held atop Mt. Everest and planted beneath the Pacific Ocean in the Marianas Trench; of the flag placed in 1969 on the moon by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin; of the flags over the White House and the U.S. Capitol during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and other U.S.-loving commanders in chief; of the flag raised above Ground Zero by New York firefighters on 9/11; and I think of the flags on the shoulders of our young warriors in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

But I also think of how Col. Leo K. Thorsness (USAF Ret.), a POW in Vietnam (1967-73) and recipient of the Medal of Honor, answered that question:

“Let me tell you what I think when I see our flag. As a fighter pilot on my 93rd mission over North Vietnam, my F-105 was hit by an air-to-air missile and my Electronic Warfare Officer Harold Johnson and I were forced to eject. After unsuccessful rescue attempts, we were captured by enemy forces and imprisoned in the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’ for the next six years.

"One day in our sixth year of imprisonment, a young Navy pilot named Mike Campbell found a piece of cloth in a gutter. After we collected some other small rags, he worked secretly at night to piece them together into a flag. He made red from ground-up roof tiles and blue from tiny amounts of ink, then used rice glue to paste the colors onto the rags. Using thread from his blanket and a homemade bamboo needle, he sewed the pieces together, adding white fragments for stars.

"One morning he whispered from the back of our cell, ‘Hey gang, look here,’ and proudly held up that tattered American flag, waving it as if in a breeze. We all snapped to attention and saluted — with tears in our eyes.

"A week later, the guards were searching our cells and found Mike’s flag. That night they pulled him out of the cell and, for his simple gesture of patriotism, they tortured him. At daylight they pushed what was left of Mike back through the cell door.

"Today, whenever I see our flag, I think of Mike and the morning he first waved that tattered emblem of our great nation. It was then, thousands of miles from home, imprisoned by a brutal enemy, that he courageously demonstrated the liberty it represents, and that is what I see in every American flag today.”

(Recently, our Essential Liberty Project sponsored a children’s book, “I’m Your Flag,” and Col. Thorsness noted, “It is a fitting tribute to our national banner, and a great resource for young Americans.”)

Regrettably, I also think of those American flags desecrated by enemies foreign and domestic. I have mixed opinions about a Flag Desecration Amendment as proposed after the Supreme Court struck down the Flag Protection Act passed by Congress in 1968 and, by extension, all such proscriptions enacted by the states.

The Patriot Post is clearly afforded legal protection under the First Amendment’s assurance that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” But only activist judges in the “despotic branch,” as Thomas Jefferson warned, would twist those words in such a contorted manner as to suggest that flag desecration is “protected speech.” Thus, any proposed Amendment would fall to similar “interpretation.”

The only solution to the reckless disregard for our Constitution, and the countless ways the contempt for its plain language has undermined Liberty, is the restoration of Constitutional Rule of Law. But I digress…

Notably, I have no mixed opinions about those who desecrate our flag, and my disdain for those who undertake such defilement is equal to the blood that has been spilled to sustain the Liberty it represents.

The tragic irony, of course, is that such desecration, as errantly interpreted by the Supreme Court, is guaranteed by generations of Patriots who have honored their solemn oaths “to Support and Defend” our Constitution, and have sacrificed all on our behalf.

June 14 is Flag Day. If you are not yet proudly displaying our flag at your home, place of business, on your car, etc., I ask that you join me in honoring our heritage of Liberty by displaying its most appropriate symbol.

(Note: Flag Day is also my annual reminder to replace worn flags with new flags. And, I invite you to consider this patriotic defense of our nation’s flag in one of the best Major League plays of all time!)

Pro Deo et Constitutione – Libertas aut Mors
Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis

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