Calvin Coolidge once summed up of the true meaning of the American flag:
[W]hen we look at our flag and behold it emblazoned with all our rights, we must remember that it is equally a symbol of our duties," he said. "Every glory that we associate with it is the result of duty done. A yearly contemplation of our flag strengthens and purifies the national conscience.
As we pause today to celebrate the 223rd anniversary of the making of our flag, let us think for a moment about what the flag means.
In the 1760s, Parliament (and even many colonists) laughed at the idea of the 13 colonies uniting together. Those skeptics believed that America was simply too diverse and liberty too chaotic for there to be one nation.
Now more than ever, that debate rages once again. What is America? And can those stars and stripes wave over a united and free people?
We have to remember that through all the changes to our flag from the addition of stars to its triumphant planting on Iwo Jima and on the moon, the symbol of American glory has been through a lot. Its story is a reminder of a great people made great by liberty.
The American flag was created officially on June 14, 1777, when the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution. At that time, many of the nation's luminaries were busy with state business in the conflict with Britain. Some of those attending the Second Continental Congress doubted a separation with Britain and were even worried the states would destroy each other in the wake of independence.
But as a united body, those men eventually came to see what a united America could be. So they set forth a single symbol to represent a single will. Their resolution read: "That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternately red and white, that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation."
The original flag went through many changes over the years until an executive order by President William Howard Taft in 1912 established proportions for the flag and regulated the ordering of the stars into rows. The first Flag Day celebrations occurred in the mid-1880s. By 1894, Flag Day events drew some 300,000 people to city parks in Chicago alone. A proclamation by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 officially established Flag Day, but it was not until 1949 that President Harry Truman signed a law making June 14 National Flag Day.
Whatever the historical origins of the flag or its holiday, its meaning was always clear: it was the symbol of a new, unified nation. One American flag replaced 13 individual colonial flags.
Americans can trace their heritage to every country on the globe, and subscribe to hundreds of different religions. Those differences are possible because of the fundamental principles of America, represented by the flag's colors which tell of justice, truth, equality and freedom.
Abraham Lincoln eloquently expressed these ideas in 1861. At a flag raising before Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Lincoln warned his fellow Americans that it was only by "cultivating the spirit that animated our fathers . . . cherishing that fraternal feeling which has so long characterized us as a nation, [and] excluding passion, ill-temper and precipitate action on all occasions...," that the nation had any hope of remaining a Union.
The same admonition applies to us today. Though we do not face a Civil War, we seem to have lost that "fraternal feeling" necessary for Union. We disagree about fundamental ideas of right and wrong. No nation can endure such internal dissension for long.
Earlier the same day, Lincoln defined the core of the American idea. It was, he said, the "sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence." That sentiment is the idea that "all men are created equal." Our equal rights, according to the "laws of nature and nature's God," imply also equal duties to respect the rights of others, to behave as good citizens under the Constitution, and to honor and protect our country in time of need.
In this election year, Republicans, Democrats, and independents should recall the sacrifices and insights of the Founders. Let us not forget that our flag symbolizes a common heritage of equal rights, duties, and limited government. Let us celebrate with pride the stars and stripes that are the symbol of moral truth and goodness the world over.
Claremont Institute adjunct Fellow Matthew Robinson writes about another American flag worth remembering: the revolutionary banner emblazoned with the coiled rattler and bearing the legend "Don't Tread On Me." Read about its origins.