As humans, one of the differences that distinguishes us from other species is our need for symbols. It seems to me that our higher cognitive ability makes symbols an absolute necessity for us. Our word “symbol” comes from the Greek words sun and bolein, meaning “to throw with.” In other words, symbols are things that carry with them more than just themselves. They make other realities present to us. A religious symbol brings with it a reminder and perhaps even the experience of divine presence. Patriotic symbols remind us of our communal past and the values that inspired our nation’s founding. Some of the most fascinating patriotic symbols are to be found among the many flags that have represented our nation, our various states, and the political entities that were precursors to the states.
Along with the study of flags (vexillology), as a child I was also fascinated with stamp and coin collecting. Each was a path to understanding more about the world: its leaders and peoples, the values and ideologies of various cultures and nations, and even the overall movement of human history. Coins, stamps, and flags all served to remind me of the sacrifices and ideals of those who came before us as well as the overall shifting of human history. Even as a child I began to realize that there was more to life than just appreciating my own values and my own era. I also learned to make mature judgments about political ideologies, which ones respected human freedom and diversity and which ones enslaved their constituents.
My maternal grandmother was Avis (Nell) Welch Vignes of Biloxi. I remember that for my ninth birthday she presented me with the beginnings of a stamp collection. The gift included a fine album along with some stamps from her own collection. I took to the collecting of stamps the way a fish takes to water, but exactly a month later the collection was gone, washed away by the waters of Hurricane Camille (August 17, 1969). From the ruins of our neighborhood in Ocean Springs, however, a new gift emerged. I discovered a glass mayonnaise jar filled with salt water and used postage stamps–the lost collection of some fellow collector who was also devastated by the rising storm waters. I never found the owner, so I adopted the stamps as my own and set about drying them and mounting them in a new album purchased some time later.
That jar was like a little piece of history to me. In it I discovered stamps with portraits of national leaders like Washington and Lincoln, and air mail stamps from the early days of flight. I also discovered that in the US our postage stamps only depict persons who are no longer living while in many other countries members of living royalty are included. Of particular interest were stamps from a US series from the time of the Second World War known as the Overrun, or Occupied Nations Series (see below). They featured the national flags of nations that had been overtaken by Nazi Germany and effectively served as a tribute to the people of those countries who resisted fascism.
For most of my adult life I have flown the American flag in front of my home. It’s a tradition, and installing a flag pole is a bit of a ritual for me anytime I’ve moved to a new house. Since the last year or so of the George W. Bush administration, however, my pole has increasingly been decorated not with the national flag bearing fifty stars, but with patriotic flags from the American Revolution. I believe fervently in the ideals of our nation’s Founders, and in the American dream, but I’m experiencing more and more inner turbulence these days with regard to what America is becoming. Increasingly, the current 50-star flag reminds me that too many of us are out to get whatever we can from the coffers of the government as long as we don’t have to pay for it. This is a recipe for disaster. I also worry that those 50 stars and 13 stripes are flying over too many bases in too many distant nations. I’m not an isolationist, but I’m not a fan of being the world’s police force, either. I wonder if the Stars and Stripes still represent to the world our national commitment to liberty, or if they have come to symbolize mere power.
Perhaps as an opportunity for my own reflection, I’ve decided to initiate a new series of blog posts entitled “Flags That Inspire Me.” I hope you’ll enjoy the series, and that perhaps you’ll be moved to share your own stories. In order to help readers find the posts in the series, they’ll be marked in a special category of their own (see the category selections on the right side of the screen). Perhaps the series will be a good reminder of the values that brought our nation into being, and just what we’ll lose if we don’t re-embrace those values wholeheartedly.
If you have children who need a fun way to learn about America’s flag traditions, please share this series with them. And if you want to do your own study while perusing some colorful flag portrayals, you might visit CRW Flags, one of the most comprehensive sites of its type to be found anywhere on the internet. On the CRW site you can find sections dedicated to the flags of current countries as well as nations that are no longer in existence. There is a whole page on historical US flags, which is one of my very favorites on the site. There are links that take the reader to pages on almost every topic of interest about US flag usage and history, along with this terrific external link that will keep you and your kids busy for hours! (For those who are fans of J.R.R. Tolkein and his stories, there is even a page on this external link to the flags of Middle Earth!) If you think your children would enjoy designing their own flag, let them visit the Scholastic page dedicated to the topic.