Today is June 14th, Flag Day. Like a lot of official American holidays Flag Day is a day that is semi shrouded in myth and now, oddly, controversial. Flag Day is meant to commemorate the day in 1777 when John Adams first publicly described the new flag of our new and revolutionary nation. A few days earlier George Washington had commissioned a woman named Betsey Ross to make something suitable. The rest, as they say, is history.
If you have ever been to Philadelphia you can visit Betsey Ross's house. You can also visit the house Dolly Madison stayed in, and a gorgeous mansion where the hero who became a traitor, Benedict Arnold, lived with his glamorous bride. If, like me, you are a near California native, the history of the American Revolution feels very distant. I grew up surrounded by remnants of a very different sort of history; Gold Rush camps and silver rush camps, Missions and adobes, the frontier forts of the empires of Spain and Tsarist Russia. But regardless of where you are, if you are an American citizen --and even if you aren't-- Flag Day and the intertwining stories of Betsey Ross, George Washington, John Adams, all the other Adamses and Madisons, and your story and my story, are intertwined.
A flag doesn't make a country. People do. Our flag represents the radical and revolutionary idea of a country created by its citizens. In an age of monarchs and subjects the United States was uniquely committed to the idea --and more importantly, the ideal-- of the individual.
Right now our flag is under attack. Maybe it always has been. One of my favorite teachers in school was a specialist in the history of the American Revolution. He always used the same password for everything. "America is Revolting!" No spaces, all lower caps. Most people probably never got the joke. As a country we are a radical experiment in individualism. And for better or worse, our experiment has worked for over two hundred years. There have been bad years and bad decades. Sometimes the bad guys win, sometimes justice is hard won. To me the flag represents all of that --the bad and the good, the triumphs and the tragedies-- but it also represents all of us. I'm a woman. I could focus on the fact that a man got to describe the flag. A man got to lead the armies, and a woman got to sew it.
In some ways Betsey Ross is almost as much of a mythic figure in our history books as Sally Pitcher is. The problem we are facing now is that our history books are being neglected, or gutted, by people who want to focus on the mistakes and tragedies rather than accept the complex reality of a nation of individuals enduring through time.
Tomorrow conservatives will probably take a great deal of satisfaction on social media in grinding over some tone deaf Op Ed by a writer for the New York Times, or Buzzfeed, or whatever, detailing how "offensive" the author found the sight of the flag while embarking for the Hamptons. (Self awareness is very hard for some writers.) But we shouldn't take satisfaction in verbally savaging anyone so petty that they can't see the glory or the hope that Betsey Ross sewed into our flag.
As our country has changed and expanded so has our flag. We don't fly Betsey Ross's flag anymore. In fact the Betsey Ross flag seems as quaint a relict as Betsey's house in Philadelphia. (It is tiny by the way. Not as tiny as the Marquis de Lafayette's camp bed at Valley Forge, but Betsey didn't live in a McMansion.) But the ideals of individualism, citizenship and revolutionary optimism sewn into the original flag back in the 1770s should still and forever represent the American spirit.
So perhaps we should all ask ourselves what our part in this strange fabric of a country is? Where is our spirit? What will we do today and tomorrow to maintain that spirit?