John Prine once sang “Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore”. While that may or may not be true, the American flag has always been more than a piece of cloth or even a symbol of a nation. What that “more” is, Arnaldi Testi sets out to explain in Capture the Flag: the Stars and Stripes in American History. Testi shows that the flag sits at the intersection of all that is held to be American.
In ways he says that are unique to the US, the stars and stripes have a “very special status… in the consciousness of the American people”. There exists according to Testi, a “flag fetishism” and his book seeks to depict the special American “cult of the flag”.
Flags came about to serve mundane purposes: to mark territorial boundaries or identify ships at sea or to rally an army in combat. National flags before the American and French revolutions belonged to kings and queens and ruling families. They were coats of arms which represented people or rulers. The American flag was the first to represent a nation with no monarch, it was the people’s flag. Testi demonstrates that the American idea of its flag developed from the blood of a civil war, and became tangled up with ideas of American exceptionalism and empire.
Every cult needs a birth narrative. Betsy Ross, or rather her legend, supplies one for the flag. Testi outlines how the myth of the mother of the flag was constructed to meet its burgeoning devotion. Historically speaking the creation of the flag was the result of a banal act of a congressional committee and the actual shape and size and manner of its first construction remain obscure. However, the story of Betsy Ross and the works of art her myth inspired “recall the nativity of Christ or the Adoration of the Magi”. She becomes the “hallowed mother of the flag and the nation.” Testi sees her “in effect as the Founding Mother, the incarnation of the ideal of the republican mother of the nineteenth century culture”.
This maternal image was itself the result of a devotion to the flag that had its roots in the horror of the Civil War. The secessionist threat to the Union inspired “a wave of patriotism and outrage at the breakup of the Union” and the Northern people “covered themselves in the national colors.” It was the incredible numbers of war dead, however, and the seemingly ocean-size spill of American blood that fertilized an astonishing growth in zealous enthusiasm for the flag. The idea of America for which the union soldiers died took on a tangible form in the flag now known as “Old Glory”. The sheer number of dead seemed to demand a commensurate attachment to an object that stood for their sacrifice. The more blood shed, the deeper grew the zeal for the flag.
The War of 1812 produced the “Star Spangled Banner”. The sacrifices of World Wars I and II (as well as the events of 11 September 2001) showed a rise in flag devotion and display. The flag has become an emblem of the far flung missions of national might; it has been hoisted over Puerto Rico in 1898, Iwo Jima in 1945, the moon in 1969 and Bagdad in 2003. This connection to war and the death of soldiers for the sake of the nation is seen most clearly in the need for celebration and remembrances of the dead in the years following the conflicts. Parades need banners and the fading memories of those who died is given a sacramental focus in the red, white and blue.
The stars and stripes signify a national flag that changes and grows along with the country itself. The number of stars are tied to the number of states in the Union. As the Unites States acquired more states, so too the flag its stars.
Besides being a territorial and national marker, Testi makes clear that the flag is a kind of national, secular sacrament, a quasi religious, tangible object demanding faith, worship and sacrifice around which a disparate community seeks to find unity. There are ceremonies and creeds and holy days and rubrics that have clustered around the “sacred emblem”. The historical roots to these observances show that of course America was not born with an intact flag cult. It developed over time.
At the end of the 19th century, Flag Day was instituted in schools to inculcate patriotism. Acceptance of the Pledge of Allegiance spoken by public school children was pushed through at the same time. The social context for these new liturgies was the increasing waves of immigration and the nervousness that these new immigrants had to be somehow Americanized or the strength of the nation would be at risk.
This rising devotion to the flag was not without is ironies. Testi notes that the author of the Pledge of Allegiance was a socialist:
“Francis C. Bellamy, (was) a rather colorful character, a journalist who had formerly been a Baptist minister, rejected by his church because he had preached Christian socialism against the evils of capitalism… He often likened the Pledge to the Lord’s Prayer, but he also thought of including in it ‘the historic slogan of the French Revolution which meant so much to Jefferson and his friends, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.’
In the end, he deleted the French quotation, maintaining that equality and fraternity would be too controversial, too anti-individualistic for the Americans of the time. He considered the words freedom and justice to be more ecumenical, ‘applicable to either an individualist or a socialist state.’ Optimistically, he left the option open to future generations.”
This socialist who was so devoted to the flag and allegiance to the country it represents points to another part of the American flag phenomenon Testi does well in explicating. The flag has meant many different things to many different people. It has served as the rallying point for the Ku Klux Klan, women suffrage, the Civil Rights movement, the NRA and labor unions. The flag has the quality of a patriotic Rorschach test. One sees in it the values one holds dear about America. All see the red white and blue but one sees a strong military, another the bill of rights, another Pilgrim ancestors, another capitalistic greatness, another oppression by federal government, and so on.
Testi is an Italian who teaches US history at University of Pisa. He brings freshness and an outsider’s perspective to a topic that may be too close for many Americans to consider objectively. As a European intellectual, Testi is masterful in his cultural and historical analysis. However, in his otherwise insightful investigation, Testi misses the chance to understand the simple patriotism wrought by the positive attributes of the American experiment, and gratitude for the prosperity and freedoms it has brought so many.