Flag Pins and American Decline

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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The pettiness du jour of the 2008 Presidential campaign is whether or not candidates wear flag lapel pins, and what it does or does not portend for their Presidency.

Early in the Civil War, the idea of a medal for individual valor was proposed to General-in-Chief of the Army Winfield Scott. But Scott felt medals smacked of European affectation and opposed the idea. The medal was eventually established and became the Medal of Honor.

I think even the staunchest advocate of early American republican values would agree that Scott took it a little too far. But Americans were once deeply opposed to any kind of pomp or ceremony. And most of the things that have come to be regarded as indispensible patriotic symbols would have been regarded as puffery during America's first century.

"In God We Trust" first appeared on the 1864 two-cent coin. Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase had received a letter from a minister lamenting:

You are probably a Christian. What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation?

This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed. From my hearth I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters.

Chase proposed the change to Congress, which approved it. Of course Chase might have pointed out that spending untold blood and treasure to end slavery ought to qualify as "relieving us from the ignominy of heathenism." Or he might have pointed out that if the minister was so affected by national shame, he might go help wage the Civil War in person, instead of "from my hearth."

"In God We Trust" had a spotty run on our coins. It disappeared from the five-cent coin in 1883, and did not reappear until production of the Jefferson nickel began in 1938. It was inadvertently omitted from the double-eagle ($20) gold coin and the eagle ($10) gold coin shortly after they appeared in 1907. In response to a general demand, Congress ordered it restored, and in1908, made it mandatory on all coins where it had previously appeared. That left out the one-cent coin and five-cent coin. It could be placed on them by the Secretary of the Treasury or the Mint Director with the Secretary's approval. The motto has been on one-cent coins since 1909, and on ten-cent coins since 1916. Since 1938, all United States coins bear the inscription.

Somehow, we had completely occupied the area of the continental United States without ever having "In God We Trust" on our coins.

In 1892 a forerunner of the "Pledge of Allegiance" was first published in a magazine called "The Youth's Companion," written by Francis Bellamy. Most patriotic Americans are unaware that Bellamy intended it as a socialist pledge. After a campaign by the Catholic organization Knights of Columbus, the words "Under God" were added by act of Congress in 1954.

We fought a Civil War and built a transcontinental railroad without a pledge of allegiance. We fought two World Wars without having the words "Under God" in the pledge.

We also did most of that without an official national anthem, either. Although The Star Spangled Banner was widely venerated as a national song, it wasn't made the official national anthem until 1931.

Early American campaign posters regularly used the American flag as a background, often with candidates' names and slogans on the white stripes of the flag. Since some of the uses crossed the line of etiquette, by the late 1800's there were movements to set standards for usage. After supporters failed to obtain federal legislation, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota became the first States to adopt flag protection statutes in 1892, and by 1932, all of the States had them. In 1942 Congress passed  the Federal Flag Code, providing for uniform guidelines for the display and respect shown to the flag. The Flag Code  is simply a guide for voluntary civilian compliance.

So we invented the steamboat, the mechanical reaper, the skyscraper and the electric light without any flag statutes, and it wasn't until World War II, when the real Americans were in uniform or on assembly lines, that the 4F's and draft dodgers took time away from their busy schedules interning the Japanese to draft a Federal statute.

There's nothing really wrong with patriotic symbols. That picture of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima is as potent a symbol as anyone can ask for. Greg Louganis singing his own Star Spangled Banner when the music gets fouled up in the 1980 Olympics? Priceless. There's nothing like a visit to Mount Rushmore to put our daily complaints and the pettiness of political campaigns into perspective.

On the other hand, I recall another moment from the 1980 Winter Olympics. Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev competing in the pairs' figure competition. It's Rodnina's last Olympics. She's won many medals before but now she's 31 years old, pretty old for world class figure skating. She's competing, but there are younger, hotter skaters coming up. Nobody really expects her to get the gold.  And somehow they win. And they're raising the Soviet flag and playing the Soviet anthem, and Rodnina is on the podium with tears streaming down her face. Other people react to their patriotic symbols, too.

But the thing that strikes me about all these patriotic symbols is how late they came in American history. Somehow we survived the winter at Valley Forge, went to Tripoli, sailed Old Ironsides into battle, sent Lewis and Clark to the Pacific, expanded our borders to the Pacific, rode the Pony Express, built a telegraph line and a transcontinental railroad, fought at Bull Run, Antietam, Vicksburg and Gettysburg, and the Little Big Horn, and we somehow did it without having an official national anthem, an official national motto, a flag etiquette code, or a pledge of allegiance, with or without God in it.

On the other hand, since we declared an official national anthem, an official national motto, a flag etiquette code, and a pledge of allegiance mentioning God, we lost in Vietnam, suffered a major societal breakdown in the 1960's, and were struck by the terrorist attacks of 2001. We responded to the first major oil shortage in 1973 by  basically doing nothing. But to me, the uttermost depth of American disgrace was the abandonment of the Apollo Program. We decided, having made it to the Moon, that it was boring and too expensive. We could have had much of the world of 2001: A Space Odyssey, by 2001. Maybe not a lunar base as extensive as in the film, almost certainly not a manned voyage to Jupiter, but we could have had a permanent lunar presence. But we decided to "spend the money on problems here on earth." Anybody care to show me where it went?

Far from marking a defense of our traditional values, our obsession with patriotic symbols is the unmistakable sign of a decadent society, a society full of people that obsess over symbols because they can't be bothered to achieve anything of substance. As students they carry around In Search of Excellence or the Seven Habits books, but won't take math or foreign languages. As grownups they move into covenant neighborhoods so they can live among people who obsess over well groomed lawns, but complain bloody murder when their kids are disciplined at school, get arrested, get called out at second base or fail a course in college. They complain about welfare frauds and illegal immigrants but want people to formulate drugs and refine gasoline for bargain basement prices. They live in places like Piper, Kansas, where a school board overruled a teacher who failed students for plagiarizing papers. Because it's a lot easier to get angry about taking "Under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance than it is to go down to the enlistment center and raise your hand.


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Created 24 April 2008;  Last Update 02 June, 2010

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