Holiday History: Flag Day

American flag waving in breeze with clear blue sky
American flag waving in breeze with clear blue sky
M.E. Parker via Shutterstock

“The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.”

Today is Flag Day. That quote is buried in Title 4 of the United States Code, Chapter 1, Section 8, Subsection (j), but it captures the essence of the flag for many Americans.

Bernard Cigrand is the man typically credited with the idea of Flag Day. He certainly observed a Flag Day at his small-town school in Wisconsin on June 14, 1885. He continued to passionately promote Flag Day as a way to respect the flag. He published a widely read article in a Chicago newspaper in 1886. He became editor-in-chief of a magazine founded to promote reverence for the flag and other American emblems.

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By June 1894, that led to Flag Day celebrations across Chicago, including some 300,000 school children.

Cigrand pushed the idea for decades, as did many others. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed June 14 as Flag Day. In 1949, an act of Congress established a national Flag Day.

The United States Code Title 4, Chapter 1, referenced earlier defines all ways in which the flag is to be designed, displayed, and protected. Some things are obvious, such as never letting the flag touch the ground, the floor, or anything else beneath it.

Some things may be less obvious. Here’s an example: there has been talk of adding another state to the United States, such as Puerto Rico. If that were to happen, the code specifies the additional star representing that new state would be added on the Independence Day following its admission.

It also specifies the exact number of days the flag should be flown at half-staff following the death of a number of government officials, from the president to a Supreme Court Justice to the governor of a state.

The code also contains the specific wording of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. Originally, the pledge did not include the words “under God.” Some religious and civic groups had been promoting its addition, but Congress famously added it in 1954, after President Dwight D. Eisenhower encouraged Congress to act.

Eisenhower had heard a sermon by Rev. George MacPherson Docherty, pastor of New York Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., who declared: “To omit the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance is to omit the definitive factor in the American way of life.”

In case you think the idea of Flag Day is just an American thing, though, Wikipedia lists more than 50 countries that have Flag Day observances of one day or another.

Is the American flag a living thing representing a living country? That’s something to think about today.

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