A Brief History of Flag Day in America
On visiting America for the first time, I was instantly struck by the unabashed prominence of the American Flag. Driving along the leafy cul-de-sac's of Pasadena's more affluent neighborhoods, traversing treacherous traffic along Sunset Boulevard or even still, roaring along the Interstate, there it was in one form or another; the 'Star-Spangled Banner' displayed in all its glory.
At first, such a conspicuous display of raw patriotism filled me with unease. The fervid national identity shared by every American citizen had yet to become agreeable to me as such a sentiment was wholly unfamiliar to my own experience. I come from a land torn apart by violence and strife, a place where neighbors murder each other at the slightest provocation and where poverty walks hand in hand with corruption and greed. So you see, it is very seldom that ordinary citizens feel compelled to display their national flag with a sense of pride or patriotism.
It did not take long however, before I too came to approach the American Flag with a degree of reverence and pride. This surprised me as I had never before felt such heartfelt emotion over something essentially iconic. While novel for me, this sentiment is precisely the nature and purpose of any National Flag.
When a 19 year old school teacher named Bernard John Cigrand, in Waubeka Wisconsin, placed a 10" 38 star American Flag into the inkwell of a desk and instructed his pupils to write an essay on what the Flag meant to them he too understood, as early as 1885, that the American Flag constituted more than a mere symbolic emblem or official icon. He realized that it gave tangible representation to the evolution and establishment of a nation, particularly one procured through fortitude, hardship, perseverance, loyalty and acts of extreme bravery. This young teacher, in encouraging his pupils to personally identify with the attributes and associations ascribed to the American Flag's ideology, sought to instill within them a solid moral and ethical platform based upon the principles represented by this ideology.
Cigrand's passion for his country's Flag and all that it embodied did not curb with his student's project. Rather, he became impassioned by the idea of dedicating a day to the country's Flag. He adopted June 14, as the day for which annual observance of the Flag should be held.
Choosing to hold these celebrations on the 14th June was by no means a random decision. Cigrand was well versed in the politics of his country and had chosen the anniversary of the Flag's Resolution that had transpire on June 14, 1777. It was on this date that the Flag, as Cigrand knew it, was raised for the first time to commemorate a brand new nation - The United States of America. The iconic values attributed to those 'stars and stripes' in 1777, only slightly different in design now one hundred and eight years later, remained steadfastly those of unity, justice and liberty for all.
Cigrand, despite his unabated dedication to a National Flag Day that continued in the form of a myriad of articles and papers on the subject till his death in 1932, was not the only champion for celebrating the National Flag and the sentiments it embodied. His initial Flag Day celebrations were met with nationwide publicity and four years later George Balch, another schoolteacher, this time stationed in New York, orchestrated a similar celebration with his students.
It wasn't long before these informal celebrations garnered an enthusiastic following and the State Board of Education of New York adopted the idea of officially observing 'Flag Day' on 14 June 1891. In 1894 the tradition of observing 'Flag Day' spread beyond just the customary festivities of the children when the governor of New York directed that on June 14th, the flag be displayed on all public buildings. Many similar celebrations and observances had been taking place in other areas of the country as well. In Philadelphia, recognition of June 14th as 'Flag Day' had grown to include the Pennsylvania Society of Colonial Dames of America, following the suggestion of a Colonel J. Granville Leach. Colonel Leach furthermore took it upon himself to adopt a resolution requesting that the mayor of Philadelphia and all other citizens display the flag on June 14th. Leach recommended the day be called 'Flag Day' and that schoolchildren be given a small flag to wave in celebration.
In Chicago on 14 June 1894, the first general public school children's celebration of Flag Day was held in Douglas, Garfield, Humboldt, Lincoln, and Washington Parks, with more than 300,000 children participating. These observances were held in the five parks again the next year and by May 30th, 1916 these unofficial June 14 'Flag Day,' ceremonies had become so popular and successful that President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation establishing 'Flag Day' as an annual national event. While Flag Day was celebrated in various communities for years after Wilson's proclamation, it was not until August 3, 1949, three decades later, that President Truman signed an Act of Congress designating June 14th of each year as National Flag Day.
And so it is that Americans take time out every year to reflect upon the symbolic magnanimity and historical significance of one of the most complex and compositely conceived flags in history. They take time to commemorate and draw strength from the many ordinary folk upon whose principles, ethics and sheer hard work this eminent land was built.
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