The Desecration of the Flag

From Put a flag on it!

The Desecration of the Flag, from Aesthetics in Washington by Horatio Greenough

An American citizen, standing here upon the pavement of the principal avenue of the Metropolis, sees five ensigns of the United States flying within sight of each other. Two of these flags float over the halls of Congress, and announce a session of both branches of the legislature; a third adorns the roof of an omnibus as a gala decoration; a fourth appears on the roof-tree of a new hotel as a sign, or perhaps puff extraordinary; a fifth marks the site of an engine-house. I cannot but think that several of these flags are misplaced. Their use at the Capitol has always struck my eye as appropriate and beautiful. The other instances of their appearance which I have mentioned seem an abuse, a desecration of the national symbol of Union.

There is always a tendency in every community to seize upon and make use of that which is public, or of general influence and widely recognised significance. The same holy symbol which surmounts the cupola of all Roman Catholic cathedrals, is made in Italy to answer the end which in England is effected by a bit of board, bearing the words “commit no nuisance.” When the position which it is desired to protect is particularly exposed, the cross is repeated ten, twenty, fifty times, and is even reinforced by verses in honor of saints, martyrs, and the Holy Virgin. A foreigner is much shocked by such a practice. The natives smile at his squeamishness — they are used to it; yet they all quote “nee Deus intersit, etc.” readily enough upon other occasions.

It is very clear that the national flag, however some persons may smile at the assertion, has a deep and noble significance, one which we should hold sacred and do nothing to impair. Were it a mere “bit of bunting,” as the British Foreign Secretary thoughtlessly or artfully styled it, why should we see it universally paraded?

I believe no one will deny that the colors of the Union hoisted at the dockyards and arsenals assert the national possession — that they proclaim the nationality of our merchant ships in foreign parts, and sanction the display of our naval power. These and the like occasions call for them, and their appearance has a value and expression of a peculiar kind. Is it doubtful that the dragging them through the streets by whosoever chooses so to do, the parading them upon taverns, and raree-shows, and other like trivial occasions, tends to degrade and weaken their special meaning and value? I may be told that the abuse, if such it be, is rather within the region of taste than of legal observance. I regret that it is so, because the whole matter has assumed its present aspect, because it is “nobody’s business” to interfere. It is merely as a question of taste that I speak of it, and as such, I believe that a little reflection will show, that accustomed as we are to see the flag hung out “a-propos de bottes” and sometimes hanging downwards too, so as almost to touch the heads of the horses as they pass, our indifference to the desecration is merely a measure of use, and wont, and analogous, though not equal to the obtuseness of the Catholic, who uses the cross of the Redeemer in lieu of a by-law or police regulation.

I have heard the right of each citizen to use the national flag stoutly maintained. I cannot see why the consular seal, or the gardens of the White House, are not equally at his mercy. There is another argument which may be called the argumentum ad Buncombe, and which might easily be resorted to to defend this and the like abuses, viz., That it is peculiarly American and democratic. The English long asserted a right to be coarse and uncourteous as a proof of sincerity and frankness. John Bull, they contended, was too honest to be civil. There is much nonsense of this sort in the old books. Excessive beer-drinking and other gluttonies were upheld as having some mysterious virtue in them. Sailors used to swear and blaspheme in a similar way. It was expected of them, and required no apology. When such notions yielded, as they must, to reflection and cultivation, it was seen at once that they had been only abuses or barbarisms ingeniously hitched on to other qualities, and identified with self-love.

The complete text of Aesthetics in Washington as reprinted in A Memorial of Horatio Greenough by Henry T. Tuckerman


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