Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Some Fourth Thoughts

Rich Shenkman, an editor at History News Network, points out that flag worship is a relatively recent development and not a measure of real patriotism.

No doubt the founders would be pleased to see that the flag is respected today. But they would not understand it being worshiped. Worship of the flag is strictly a modern development. A hundred years or so ago only a few self-appointed flag defenders conceived of it as a sacred object. Schools were not required to fly the flag until 1890. Americans did not begin pledging allegiance to the flag until 1892. They did not begin saluting the flag until around the Spanish-American War in 1898. Flag Day was not nationally observed until 1916. The flag code, prescribing the proper way to treat a flag and dispose of it, was not approved by Congress until 1942 and did not become part of federal law until 1976. The interesting thing is not that the rituals of flag worship go back only as far as the late nineteenth century but that Americans think they go back further. We have become so used to the idea that the flag is a sacred object that we cannot imagine a time when it was not considered one. However, there was a time when patriotism needed no such artificial braces. During the Revolution, when men were fighting and dying on the battlefield to establish a new nation, saluting the flag would have been regarded as an empty gesture. The thing to do was to go out and join the fighting. That was patriotism.
Frederick Douglass: What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

Fellow-citizens, I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing and a byword to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your union. It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement; the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice....

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country.... While drawing encouragement from the "Declaration of Independence," the great principles it contains and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.
Rock historian Greil Marcus

It doesn't matter that, well, yes, of course, on the fourth of July, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was presented, everyone understood that all men meant men, not women; whites, not blacks; Christians, not Jews or Hindi or heathen; decent people, not Sodomites. The idea that "all men are created equal" was not a "self-evident truth," Sen. John Pettit said on the floor of the Senate in 1853: it was "a self-evident lie." It was in the midst of the debates over the Kansas-Nebraska Act; Pettit was arguing for voiding the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and opening the territories to slavery. It was a debate: "The great declaration cost our forefathers too dear," Sen. Benjamin Franklin Wade of Ohio replied to Pettit, "to be so lightly thrown away by their children."

Abraham Lincoln read these debates from his oblivion in Springfield, Ill.; he was a 44-year-old lawyer who had served one term in Congress before being turned out of office. Pettit's words and the words against him brought Lincoln back to the world. Soon he was speaking as if the Declaration of Independence contained all the words the nation ever needed to hear -- and in a certain sense, it didn't matter that Lincoln did not believe that, once men and women left the hand of their creator, they were equal on earth. "Pettit called the Declaration of Independence a lie," Lincoln said in Peoria in 1854, answering a speech by Stephen Douglas. "If it had been said in old Independence Hall 78 years ago, the doorkeeper would have thrown him into the street." That might have been a fairy tale; the Declaration of Independence itself might be a fairy tale, but not one that can be given an ending, happy or not. The charge in the Declaration was boundless; no limits placed upon it hold.

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