An emotional symbol of our country’s freedom

An American flag was raised at ground zero as crews sifted through the rubble at the World Trade Center after 9/11. An American flag was raised at ground zero as crews sifted through the rubble at the World Trade Center after 9/11. (Dominic Chavez/Globe Staff/File 2001)
By James Sullivan
August 22, 2009

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The American flag was ubiquitous in the aftermath of 9/11. Consumers spent record-breaking millions on flags - most of them manufactured in Asia. The irony was duly noted.

Why, exactly, do we invest such meaning in a piece of cloth? Comedian George Carlin, for one, questioned our patriotic custom of saluting the flag. It’s only a symbol, he said, “and I leave symbols to the symbol-minded.’’

But if the American flag is merely a symbol, it sure does pack a wallop. A visual reminder of shared emotions after the terrorist attacks, the red, white, and blue has been claimed by groups on all sides of the political debate, both for better and for worse. At various times in the nation’s history, the flag has represented anti-immigration sentiment, the abolition movement, Jim Crow, faith in capitalism, support for the military, and protesters’ claims to free speech, writes Woden Teachout in her smart new book, “Capture the Flag,’’ about its many meanings.

None of those meanings are traced to Betsy Ross, who gets a single, fleeting mention. For the author, the flag is less about sewing and the 13 original colonies than the country’s rich history of political maneuvering and the huge, vexing issues that this simple arrangement of shapes can help unfurl.

A Vermont professor who has studied and taught at Harvard, Teachout follows the evolution of the star-spangled banner through eight instructive episodes. Though these inevitably include the beginnings of the American Revolution and the Civil War, her selectivity is one of the book’s selling points, as the author devotes considerable time to less obvious events such as the anti-Irish Philadelphia riots of 1844, the crafty propaganda of the presidential election of 1896, and the so-called Hard Hat Riot over Vietnam War protests. Her focus separates the work from other books about the flag - Michael Corcoran’s “For Which It Stands’’ (2002), for instance, which documented Old Glory’s design changes and the ongoing debate about flag-burning.

As much as images of the flag are wrapped up in the American Revolution, Teachout reminds us that the actual revolutionaries flew a hodgepodge of flags. In the aftermath of the Stamp Act of 1765, when colonists began to split with the British government, flags of all kinds hung at protest rallies in Boston - yellow rattlesnake flags with the inscription “Don’t Tread on Me,’’ solid red flags of protest featuring slogans such as “Liberties of America,’’ white flags with green pine trees representing New England. “It hardly mattered which image appeared on the field,’’ she writes.

Emanuel Leutze’s iconic painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware,’’ is notable for its inaccuracy: During the revolution, the general would have flown a regimental flag, not the stars and stripes. And although Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner’’ during the War of 1812, the flag, the author notes, was not routinely carried into battle by US troops until the Mexican-American War of the 1840s.

By then, however, the flag was beginning to be understood as a potent political weapon. In Philadelphia, the death of a flag-bearing tanner’s apprentice during an anti-immigration rally triggered a full-scale riot against Irish newcomers, many of whom tried to protect themselves by hanging makeshift flags on their doors.

“The riots crystallized around the flag,’’ writes Teachout. “They were no longer about specific issues like schools, or drink, or which Bible to use. Now, these issues had found expression in a national symbol.’’

The struggle over slavery and race relations is a recurring theme, from Fort Sumter and the Ku Klux Klan to the tiny flags carried by the college football players in blue letter jackets who protected the students conducting a historic sit-in at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C., in 1960. For the symbol-minded, the book is full of intriguing details. Surprisingly, Teachout reports, flag sales were up only modestly during World War II; Americans were wary of the stiff-armed salute they’d been taught for decades, which suddenly looked uncomfortably like Hitler’s.

Even after 9/11, the flag’s symbolic ammunition could backfire. The erosion of civil liberties at home and news of illegal interrogation tactics overseas led to another shift in perception: “The nation that had stood for participatory democracy and the rule of law now appeared as a symbol of mass wiretapping, illegal detention, lack of habeas corpus, preventive war, rendition, and torture,’’ the author writes.

In the end, the book is less about the image than the two strands of patriotism it represents, humanitarian and nationalist, both of which, however often contradictory, are “incontestably, inarguably American.’’ The flag, the author concludes, is not powerful in spite of its ambiguity: “It is powerful because of its ambiguity.’’

Incidentally, when George Carlin died, Congress presented his wife with the flag that flew over the Capitol that day.

Globe contributor James Sullivan is the author of “The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America.’’

CAPTURE THE FLAG: A Political History of American Patriotism By Woden Teachout

Basic Books, 266 pp., $27.50

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