The flag’s meaning to our forefathers

Usually I would find the minutes of a long-adjourned meeting about as exciting as a Swedish furniture-assembly manual. Not so with minutes from the National Flag Conference, which The American Legion led in Washington in 1923. The 323-page transcript reveals a spirit of patriotism that fully captured the reason we honor and respect the meaning of Old Glory.

Appropriately convened on Flag Day, the conference was – to paraphrase our vice president – “a big deal.” Representatives of the Legion and 68 other patriotic, fraternal, civic and military organizations gathered at Memorial Continental Hall to draft a code of flag etiquette. 

President Warren G. Harding gave the opening address. “I hope you succeed in formulating a code that will be welcomed by all Americans, and that every patriotic and educational society in the republic will commit itself to the endorsement and observance and purpose of the code that you adopt here today,” he told the group.

Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, described his union members’ feelings: “To us, the American flag means more than even its colors ... It means the leadership of the democratic and humane struggle that has been carried on throughout all the ages. It means a higher development, higher understanding and concept of human lives and progress, and stands as it should stand for everyone, creating a devotion to carry that banner on and on and on and upward to the highest peak of human relationship and democratic institutions.”

The consensus among delegates was that most breaches of flag
etiquette were unintentional mistakes made by well-meaning patriots. Today, it is more difficult to explain the boneheaded decisions of some individuals regarding our flag. School administrators, backed by a recent court decision, have prohibited students at a California high school from wearing images of the U.S. flag on T-shirts during Cinco de Mayo. While the shirts are not actual flags and do not fall under U.S. Flag Code, the administrators went overboard to avoid offending supporters of the Mexican holiday.

Spinning in his grave over such thinking must be John J. Tigert, the U.S. commissioner of education who spoke at the 1923 conference. “I do not believe that the American people would ridicule other nations as the Germans did when, before this last war, they called us a nation of shopkeepers and the French a nation of degenerates and the English a nation of perfidious people,” said Tigert, a World War I veteran. “Of course if you go that far, that kind of nationalism, and if that is what the American flag stands for, then I am not in favor of respecting the American flag. But the American flag never stood for that kind of a thing, and never will ... I do not believe that there is a single thing in our flag that does not stand for honor, justice and righteousness, and there will never come a time when there are not some people in America who will not be willing to stand by the flag ... and to sacrifice for the great principles of righteousness for which the flag stands.”

For the majority of us, that is why we pause every June 14 and stand respectfully by this flag of ours, and all it means.