Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Flag Day

Americans of liberal and internationalist tendencies often have an uncomfortable relationship with the flag. To them, the Stars and Stripes can seem like the ultimate icon of blind patriotism, of jingoism, of worshipping the symbols and not the priciples of America, of what the 19th century called "spread-eagleism."

At the same time, we inhabit a nation with a badly fragmented history. In the early-middle decades of the last century, most U.S. historians worked in a theme of "consensus," which emphasized national unity and continuity. But the model they drew up was too narrow; it excluded a great many people and groups of people and didn't do proper honor to the real complexity of the American story.

Yet the generation of historians that rose up in reaction against this took their work too far. Motivated in part by Marxist theories, radicalized by the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war spirit, they concentrated solely on class, conflict, and contradiction. They picked up the American strains that the consensus historians had overlooked, but they presented those people as separate subcultures, not participating in, admiring, or striving to join the mainstream.

The picture of America that emerged after all this was of a repressive and bigoted master class of straight white males lording it over a hive of angry, seething, rejectionist minorities.

What's needed is a new, more complete, synthesis of American history, one that includes the whole tapestry, and emphasizes the common experience of all of us. Conflict has its place in this story, but it is not the motive force. I think this work has begun. And I think David Hackett Fischer is one of the leading popular writers in this neo-consensus school, a new growth of a national narrative out of the burnt-over ground of what was destroyed by the scholarship of the '60s and '70s.

I've drawn on two chapters of his most recent work, "Liberty and Freedom," to tell these stories about the American flag, in honor of Flag Day. The roots of the Stars and Stripes, so far from being one that ought to make modern liberal hearts blanch, is really one of the most "multi-cultural" stories in the American history book. Fischer writes:

The American flag is unique in its symbolism, and also in the process by which it was created. The Stars and Stripes were not copied from an ancient source, or handed down by a single leader or a small elite. As a national symbol of liberty and freedom, the flag was invented in an appropriately free and open way.

The first problem that has to be dealt with is the Betsy Ross story. It was a centerpiece of the old narratives, and has largely been rejected in the more recent ones. But a careful reading of the evidence indicates that, though hers likely was not the first stars-and-stripes flag, she played a key role in the evolution of the design.

The Continental Congress put off the matter of designing a national flag in 1776, in part certainly because they were busy with other things, in part perhaps because of the difficulty of reconciling or combining the many flag designs that had sprung up indigenously among the colonial rebels.

Among them were striped red and white flags in New England, often with a Union flag in the canton. But this looked too much like the British regimental colors. George Washington, meanwhile, had begun to use a blue flag with white stars as his headquarters flag.

Washington was in Philadelphia in the spring of 1776, consulting with Congress; he had seen the pretty young widow seamstress Betsy Ross (she was just 24) in church, and the general took his clothes to her when he had sewing needs. Perhaps the patronage was motivated by her sad honor of being one of the first war widows of the Revolution. Born Elizabeth Griscom, a Quaker farmer's daughter, she had married John Ross and she had taken over his upholstery shop to support herself when he was killed early in the war.

One day Washington visited her in the company of Robert Morris and George Ross and asked her if she knew how to make a flag. She said she had never done it, but if he would give her a pattern, she would make the flag. He drew a design, and she suggested improvements to it; on her advice Washington altered the shape, and he replaced his 6-point stars with 5-point ones after she pulled out a piece of paper, folded it, and showed him how to cut a 5-point star in just one snip.

Business in flags flowed her way after that. She kept busy through the war, sewing flags for the continantal army and the Pennsylvania navy. She remarried, only to see her second husband killed in the war. A third husband was severely wounded and left an invalid. She carried on her business until 1827, and was one of the last surviving figures of the generation of the American Revolution.

The flag Betsy Ross sewed was almost certainly Washington's headquarters flag, with the 13 stars on the blue field. The modern design, with both stars and stripes, does not appear until a year later, in the spring of 1777.

That was when an American Indian tribal leader who called himself Thomas Green wrote to the colonial leadership, requesting to send a delegation of his people on a diplomatic mission to Philadelphia. He asked Thomas Wharton, the President of the Pennsylvania Council, for "a flag of the United States" to "take to the chiefs of the nation, to be used by them for their security and protection" on the road.

The western frontier of Pennsylvania, and even as far inland as Lancaster, was no safe place for an Indian in those days. Just a few years before, settlers and Natives had fought murderous wars of extermination. But the frontiersmen were ardent revolutionaries. No doubt Green and his people correctly judged the flag would protect them in these hostile settlements along the road. He even enclosed three strings of wampum to pay for it.

On June 3, Wharton referred Green's letter to Congress. On June 14, Congress passed a resolution determining that the flag of the United was to be "13 stripes alternate red and white; that the Union be 13 stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation." This design was put together probably by Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey, chair of the Maritime Committee. Fischer writes:

The Stars and Stripes developed from the striped flag of Boston's Sons of Liberty, and the blue and white star-spangled standards of George Washington's army. It involved the advice of a Quaker seamstress, the prompting of an American Indian, the timely intervention by Pennsylvania politicians, the inspiration of Francis Hopkinson, and a resolution of the Continental Congress.

These Americans were part of a process of mixed enterprise that combined public effort and private initiative in a way that was typical of the new republic. An American Indian was not reluctant to instruct the rulers of the Colonies on what should be done, and they were quick to respond to his suggestion. A Philadelphia seamstress did not hesitate to criticize the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, and he was open to her advice. The Continental Congress accepted these contributions in the spirit of the open society that America was becoming.

The Stars and Stripes was a naval ensign primarily in the early decades of the United States, rarely flown by private citizens. But it began to be a symbol of liberty and freedom in the cold wars fought on the high seas against France, the Barbary Pirates, and especially the British in 1812-15. That was the war, of course, that finally fixed the flag in the heart of America, and at the same time gave us our national anthem.

Francis Scott Key, Episcopal churchman, slaveowner, Maryland Federalist, was a figure of patrician wealth and a scion of Southern aristocracy. Key's family owned plantations and slaves in five counties; he was an expert horseman. He married the daughter of Col. Edward Lloyd, whom Fischer describes as "one of the richest planters in the United States and owner of many slaves, among them later Frederick Douglass."

The War of 1812 put conservative Southerners like Key in an odd position. They opposed the war as an ill-planned and unnecessary fight with Britain, precipitated by incompetent hotheads in Washington who thought Canada would be ripe fruit for the picking. But Key and his peers were nationalists through and through, and they equally despised the New England secessionists who were willing to break up the union late in the war over the issue of a pending army draft.

The war fell heavily on the Chesapeake Bay. The British sailed up out of the fog and burned its towns and plantations, some three or four times. Key fought in the local militia that tried to protect his home state, and he was infuriated by the British sack of Washington, D.C.

One of Key's friends, an elderly physician names William Beanes, had been rounded up by the British as a suspected troublemaker. Key, whose family had British connections (some had been Tories during the Revolution), sailed out to a British warship under a flag of truce to try to get Beanes released.

Once aboard, Key was appalled by the way the British treated their American prisoners, and by their scorn of everything American. He did manage to obtain Beanes' release, but the British were about to begin the attack on Baltimore, and they thought it best to keep the Americans aboard until the fight was over.

From the ship, the two Maryland men could see the ramparts of Fort McHenry, and even from eight miles away they could see the huge flag, 30 feet by 42 feet, that floated above it.

George Armistead, a Virginian, had command of the fort. He was not hopeful of the outcome of the coming battle (he had sent his pregnant wife far inland for safety, to a peaceful little spot in Pennsylvania known as Gettysburg). But he and his men were game for a fight. To advertise their presence, he had ordered the biggest battle flag he could get. He wrote, "It is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance."

Baltimore's busiest flag-seamstress, Mary Pickersgill, got the order. The job was too big for her workshop, and the 350,000 stitches were done on the floor of a brewery.

The British opened the bombardment of the fort, using all the high-tech firepower in their arsenal, and they continued to hammer at it through a rainy night. In the storm, Armistead replaced the big flag with a slightly smaller "storm flag," also made by Pickersgill and her women. Key and Beanes would catch sight of the flag through the smoke by the light of shell-bursts, but then at 4 a.m. the firing stopped. The British silenced their guns to begin their landing attack.

Key and Beanes could not know that the Maryland militia in the fort beat back the assault, inflicting heavy losses on some of the most capable regiments in the world. All Key and Beanes knew was that, when the light of dawn spread in the sky, the Stars and Stripes still were there. The British admiral called a retreat, and as the ships sailed away, Armistead hauled down the smaller flag and ran up the big one again.

Key pulled out a letter and began writing his poem on the back of it. The British put him and Dr. Beanes ashore later that morning and he made his way to Baltimore, where he wrote out a better copy of the poem and set it to a popular political tune. It was published in a Baltimore paper on Sept. 17, 1814, and by October it was being widely performed and had acquired the title "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Francis Scott Key -- a young gentleman born into privilege and given the kind of education that would enable him to respond to a dramatic battle scene by jotting down acceptable rhymed verse out of his head -- and the two black women -- one slave, one free -- who worked in Pickersgill's shop and did much of the sewing on the Fort McHenry flags. It's their flag, too. It's their story, too. The flag and the story aren't points of division; they unite all these disparate lives.

It's the deeper meaning in the indivisible that formerly was the key word of the old Pledge of Allegiance.