Flags and allegiances

April 02, 2004

More references to Crooked Timber - there is a reason why they are the first thing I read most mornings.

Chris Bertram visited the US from Britain and was struck by the prevalence of American flags on display here. A very interesting discussion then ensued in the comments with a number of European commenters speculating about why Americans fly flags. Some of it was silly, but the discussion made some interesting digressions into the difference between a President and a Prime Minister, between a King and a Constitution.

This is something I write about as I tackle the problem of church and state in the United States. Traditional pre-modern states were defined by loyalty to a monarch. Membership in the state was defined either by an oath of loyalty to the monarch or by membership in the state church - so to be an Englishman you either swore loyalty to the King or participated in the Church of England. Test Acts, especially in the English context, required people to take the Sacraments of the State church and swear that they believed in its principles. Membership in the church was the test for service to the nation.

The United States had no king and one of the least divisive aspects in the Constitution was Article Six, clause three: "The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

In other words, there is an oath defining service to the state, that oath is sworn to the Constitution itself, and there is no other religious test. So, instead of citizenship being defined by loyalty to a king or membership in a church, it is defined by swearing to a document.

What does it mean to swear to support a document? I argue, in classic Cold War style, that this means swearing to uphold a set of values and principles, an idea of government, and more broadly the ideal of rule by law and not rule by men. The people are sovereign, a notion that came out of the ratification debates, but we swear loyalty to the law that structures how the people are to rule themselves.

The people are sovereign, but the President is both head of state and head of government. In the common European system the jobs are separated, with the head of state being either a monarch or an elected president while the head of government, chosen by the legislature, has efffective power. This combination of head of state and head of government means that people jump to their feet when the Prez walks into a room just as they accord ceremonial respect to the Queen. We don't jump to our feet for the Speaker of the House, nor for a Prime Minister. But, because the head of state is also head of government, and holds his position only as a condition of having sworn to "faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States," some of the symbolic role that is held by a monarch in other nations is held by the Constitution, by the Union, and by the visible symbols of that Union.

How is this related to flags? I blame the Civil War. Most Union soldiers fought to preserve the Union, especially at the start of the war. They fought under the flag for the principle that the Union should continue. This, as Jean Baker argues in Affairs of party was a side effect of the ancestor-worship and nation worship of antebellum public education, but the pressures of the war and the common tendency to interpret the war in Providential terms, imbued the physical object of the flag with the emotional content of the Union.

Just as the British Union Jack shows the combination of the various kingdoms into one political entity, so too does the American combination of a fly made up of stripes for every state (soon changed to the first 13 states) and a field of blue with a star for every state "arranged in a new constellation" represent the union. You could perhaps read the field as showing the multiplicity of states, the fly as showing the common Revolutionary heritage.

Bellamy, writing in an era when Americans were actively discussing putting an end to the emotional divisions of the American Civil War, focused on the union flag as a symbol of the republic. The 1892 pledge is, in many ways, a Northern oath: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and (to*) the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." He ties the flag to the republic, and argues that secession was a mistake. Six years later, during the Spanish American War, a Southerner would be the first to fall in battle and pundits all over the nation would argue that North and South had been reunited at the summit of San Juan Hill, for both sections had joined in this new war. Bellamy, in other words, tied the flag to the republic, imbued both with the ferver to preserve the union, and did so in memorable language that served to reinforce the flag as national symbol.

For me, at least, when I fly a flag in front of my house, it is a sign of patriotism - in the sense of a respect for the union and for the constitution. And, rather than "my country right or wrong" it is a case of "my country, let us keep it in the right." I think that is what is at the root of my deep love for flags from the Revolutionary War era. In fact, later today I am going to go and order my new flag for April, probably the "Continental" flag that was flown on Bunker Hill - red fly, white field, green pine tree in the field.

Posted by Red Ted at April 2, 2004 08:09 AM | TrackBack