• Pt. 4: How the Declaration Birthed America's Greatest Civil Rights Movements

    The U.S. flag and why patriotism is not a four letter word.

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    Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

    One of the lines of extremist attacks on Independence Day this year came against the American flag.

    “I’m sorry, but anyone happily waving American flags right now is either a gleeful white supremacist or is gleefully uninformed,” activist Bree Newsome Bass tweeted, which Fox News reported in July 2023.

    Despite Bass’s attacks on the flag, Americans of all ethnicities today and in the past appreciate the flag’s symbolism of freedom. From the start, the flag was designed as a symbol to unite the thirteen British colonies into a new entity, states that were united.

    The Grand Union Flag, pictured here in First Fireworks for Independence, was flown from 1775-1777.

    In the fall of 1775, poet and former slave Phillis Wheatley of Boston wrote about the new banner leading General George Washington’s soldiers into battle against the British military in America’s first civil rights quest—independence from the British Empire.“Or thick as leaves in Autumn’s golden reign / Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train,” Wheatley wrote in her poem about Columbia, the goddess of liberty who was also called America.

    “In bright array they seek the work of war / Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air,” she penned of the flag known as the Grand Union Flag.

    This banner featured something new at the time—13 red and white stripes to represent the United Colonies, as they were called in 1775. In the upper left-hand corner of the Grand Union Flag was something familiar to the eyes of Wheatley and her fellow colonists: A small British flag. Why was the Union Jack on this first unofficial American flag? America had not yet declared independence from England. This flag was an evolution of symbolism in progress.

    In her poem, Wheatley next focused on the hero of the hour.

    “Shall I to Washington their praise recite? / Enough thou know’st them in the fields of fight.” she wrote.

    Wheatley mailed this poem, which featured dozens of verses, to General Washington on October 26, 1775. He soon discovered that his army needed a new flag. In early January 1776, Washington received a copy of a speech by King George III, which Washington called “farcical enough” in a letter he wrote to his secretary, Joseph Reed.

    Washington then explained that to celebrate the organization of the new army “we had hoisted the [Grand] union flag in compliment to the United Colonies. But, behold, it was received in Boston (by the British army) as a token of the deep impression the (king's) speech had made upon us, and as a signal of submission.”

    Washington knew he needed a new flag, but he didn’t have time to think about symbols in 1776. His immediate priority was defeating the British military in Boston by hoisting large artillery pieces on top of Dorchester Heights. From this position, the Continental Army could target British supply ships. After the British military evacuated Boston in March 1776, the heat of the action turned to New York, where the British soundly defeated him in the summer and fall of 1776. As the year ended, Washington knew that the contracts of most of his men were set to expire on December 31, 1776. He soon wouldn't have an army to follow any flag.

    After he successfully crossed the Delaware River on the night of December 25 and launched a surprise attack on the British outpost at Trenton the next morning, Washington secured a much-needed victory, which was quickly followed by the successful Battle of Princeton. Encouraged by these successes his men agreed to stay in the Army past their enlistments.

    Phillis Wheatley and George Washington corresponded in October 1775 and early 1776 while the Continental Army was encamped in Cambridge.

    The spring of 1777 enabled General Washington to turn his attention to both rebuilding his army and giving them a new flag. The Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, had been a clear break with Mother England. Gone was the identity of the 13 British colonies in America. Replacing them were 13 independent states. Washington needed a new flag to represent the new United States of America.

    A flag committee came up with a new design. The first new banner was likely sewn by Betsy Ross, a Philadelphia upholsterer, who was related by marriage to a member of the flag committee. The Continental Congress adopted the first official flag on June 14, 1777.

    “In CONGRESS, June 14, 1777. Resolved, That the FLAG of the United States be THIRTEEN STRIPES alternate red and white; that the union be THIRTEEN STARS white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

    This flag better represented the new nation. The British flag was completely gone. Replacing the Union Jack in the left hand corner was a circle of 13 stars on a blue field representing the 13 new states.

    A few years later on June 20, 1782, the Continental Congress better understood the cost of liberty. With the end of the war in sight, Congress adopted the Great Seal of the United States. At the same time, they expanded upon the meaning of the flag by assigning virtues to the colors of the flag.

    “White signifies purity and innocence. Red [means] hardiness and valor and Blue … signifies vigilance, perseverance, and justice.”

    Congress put into practice the ideals that Phillis Wheatley had expressed in her poem to George Washington. She had spoken of valor, the virtue represented by the flag’s red stripes, when she described the respect the commanding general garnered.

    “Thee, first in place and honors,—we demand / The grace and glory of thy martial band. / Fam’d for thy valor, for thy virtues more / Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!”

    Today, when extremists accuse "anyone happily waving American flags” as “gleeful white supremacists” they are the ones who are grossly misinformed about the history and the meaning of the United States flag. Their comparisons are as ridiculous as they are hateful.

    From the start, men and women of all ethnicities, such as Phillis Wheatley, were inspired by the hope the first flags of the United States offered them. Instead of vilifying those who are proud to wave the flag today, we should follow Wheatley’s example and proclaim the virtues of patriotism.

    Here is my presentation, Patriotism Is Not a Four-Letter Word, for paid subscribers.

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    Jane Hampton Cook

    Jane Hampton Cook is a presidential historian, former White House staffer and author of 10 books, including Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War. Janecook.com.

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