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A Nation’s Flag, A National Idea

Friday, June 12th, 2015

June 10, 2015 | AEIdeas

“A yearly contemplation of our flag strengthens and purifies the national conscience,” declared President Calvin Coolidge. Echoing sentiments Woodrow Wilson expressed in his 1916 proclamation recommending the annual observance of “Flag Day,” Coolidge succinctly summed up the point for such a national holiday: “We see in [the flag] the great multitude of blessings, of rights and privileges that make up our country. But…we must remember that it is equally a symbol of our duties. Every glory that we associate with it is the result of duty done.”

Like Achilles’ famous shield depicting both war and peace in relation to the life of the city and the seasons, the American flag symbolizes the blessings and the duties germane to a self-governing nation dedicated to freedom and equality. The blessings are frequently invoked even if less well-understood by a populace safely ensconced in them, while flag-draped coffins of fallen soldiers constitute our most visceral reminders of the glory and the cost of “duty done.” But as successive presidents from Wilson onward have noted in relation to Flag Day, the upward-pointing stars combined with the red and white stripes primarily provoke us to contemplate the ongoing and current duties we carry as citizens, chief of which is respect for the rule of law.

“In whatever direction we may go we are always confronted with the inescapable conclusion that unless we observe the law we cannot be free,” noted Coolidge. Or, as that philosophical grandpappa of America John Locke put it, “…the end of law is not to abolish or restrain but to preserve and enlarge freedom…for where there is no law, there is no freedom. For liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others, which cannot be, where there is no law.” In the American tradition, this observance of the law as a supreme principle is two-pronged: it means that laws when made must not designate winners and losers, applying unequally to different persons or groups of society; it also means that all alike, those in elected office, enjoying positions of economic power, and the common laboring inhabitant, must follow the prescriptions of the law. It’s equality before the law that enables people living in civil society equally to enjoy liberty, which in turn enables a shared peace.

But as the stories in our newspapers seem frequently to remind us, the rule of law is much less difficult to invoke than to practice. In part, this is because law relies upon the good will of human agents—and, to a degree, upon their devotion. Like the flag itself, it is fragile without both. Perhaps it is in recognition of this fact that our national anthem is actually an anthem to our flag.

American composer extraordinaire John Williams celebrated that link at any rate, when on the steps of the US Capitol last year he debuted a new arrangement of the Star-Spangled banner, marking the 200th anniversary of the American flag. With a nod to tradition, in signature style Williams’ brass salvo and measured drumbeat herald an ordered unity of human voices, which swell to the simple message: our flag is still here. Remember its glories; remember too, its requests.