A few weeks ago at Louisiana State University, a small group of agitated students attempted to burn a U.S. flag in protest for some policy or other that they believed warranted the symbolic destruction of their country.
Before they could get going, however, the protest was interrupted by other students who challenged them. A growing crowd ringed around the would-be flag burners, who became the sad spectacle of their unsuccessful demonstration. The crowd roared, “USA, USA, USA, USA” and a few threw water balloons; the protesters were soon escorted away for their own safety by security officers.
This altercation over a piece of cloth reveals something crucial about the American flag—it represents an idea that most students at LSU, and indeed most Americans across the country, don’t want burned and destroyed, symbolically or otherwise. Today is Flag Day and is, therefore, a good time to think about the symbolism of this banner.
On this day in 1777, amidst a desperate war for American independence, the delegates to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia adopted the “Stars and Stripes” as the official flag of the newly emerging American nation. According to the adopted resolution: “White signifies Purity and Innocence; Red, Hardiness and Valor; and Blue, Vigilance, Perseverance and Justice.” These colors would be organized into 13 alternating red and white stripes and 13 white stars in a field of blue, symbolizing the unity of the 13 colonies and the American people’s struggle for their inalienable rights.
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Since Betsy Ross legendarily stitched the first banner, the American flag continues to inspire each generation. Throughout the War for Independence, American patriots fought and died under that flag in order to secure their rights and the blessings of liberty that had been so boldly proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. It was the sight of that “star-spangled banner” during the War of 1812 that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the American national anthem. Today, our service men and women continue to fight and die under “Old Glory” in defense of Americans’ right to self-government.
The idea of human liberty and its political corollary – the principle of self-government, or sovereignty – is not only applicable to Americans. Rather, it is a universal principle applicable to all peoples. Thomas Paine famously observed that “the cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.”
But this cause is contested today both domestically and internationally. Domestically the Progressive administrative state continues to encroach on the republican government created by the Constitution. Abroad, tyrants and terrorists try to extinguish Lady Liberty’s flame. American sovereignty is also increasingly threatened by international institutions that have little respect for the rule of law and self-government.
The ideals of America’s founding are timeless. And yet the defense of Freedom is never complete, but requires eternal vigilance. Not only must the cloth and colors of the flag endure, but the liberty it represents must not perish from the earth. In the words of the National Anthem:
O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On this symbolic day, not only Americans, but free people everywhere should pause to ponder the meaning of this red, white, and blue flag.