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Monday, July 03, 2006

Losing Old Glory: The Price of Dividing America

by Steven Laffoley

On a hot day in early July, driving south along Interstate 95 just outside of Portland, Maine, I find myself listening to the colorful jabberwocky of conservative radio. The announcer, like so many of his kind, speaks rhythmically and insistently, artfully using cascading sound bites to drive home his points. And as with all conservative radio announcers, he is angry today, angry with opposition to a constitutional amendment prohibiting the burning of the American flag.

Predictably, he tars Democrats - and their nefarious, liberal fellow travelers - with ingrained, even inbred, opposition to such an "important" constitutional amendment. "What kind of American," he shouts in mock rage, "defends the burning of Old Glory?"

Normally immune to such bait, but weary perhaps from driving, I succumb to the taunt and answer his question aloud. "Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Paine, Adams," I say, "and every other Founding Father, you twit." Not surprisingly, the announcer doesn't respond my answer, or to my name-calling. He has his own answer, characterizing those opposed to this amendment as un-American defenders of everything dark and foul and treasonous.

Now, I know that this cynical - and cyclical - promotion of a flag burning amendment to the U.S. Constitution just means another election season has arrived, and that Republican poll numbers must be down, because when Republican poll numbers are down, moral and emotional wedge issues come up. Consider the Republican amendment proposals to ban same-sex marriage, to gain prayer in schools - and, of course, to ban flag burning.

And every time the flag burning issue reappears, I muse on the irony of it. Old Glory, as the Republicans and Democrats both argue, is indeed the very symbol of our country. But the efforts to create an amendment outlawing its burning ironically separates Old Glory from the United States Constitution that gave it meaning.

Even the history of the name "Old Glory" drives home this point.


One day in 1831, Captain William Driver of Salem, Massachusetts, of the whaling vessel Charles Doggett, raised a beautifully crafted, twenty-four star flag given to him years earlier by friends. As he prepared for departure that morning, the flag snapped straight in the stiff Atlantic breeze. As those around him admired the waving flag, Captain Driver famously exclaimed: "Old Glory!"

And that name for Captain Driver's flag stuck.

In 1837, when Captain Driver retired, he brought Old Glory with him to his new home in Nashville, Tennessee. And like the locals of Salem, the locals of Nashville came to know Captain Driver's beautiful flag as "Old Glory."

Years later, when America found itself convulsed in the horrible divisions of the Civil War, Tennessee seceded from the Union. Local Confederate rebels understood the symbolic power of Captain Driver's Old Glory - of Union and the U.S. Constitution - and quickly sought to find and destroy Captain Driver's flag. But despite numerous searches, they could never find it.

Then, in February 1862, Union troops captured Nashville and symbolically raised an American flag in the town center. Jubilant local folks remembered Old Glory and asked Captain Driver if the flag still existed. The wily Captain Driver smiled and returned to his home where he carefully unstitched his bed comforter. There, tucked between the covers of the comforter, was Old Glory.

The Captain returned to the town center with the flag, and to the rising cheers and salutes of the locals and of the Sixth Ohio Regiment of the Union Army, Captain Driver replaced the soldiers' flag with Old Glory. Members of the Sixth Ohio Regiment were so moved by the unifying power of that simple flag, that they began to speak of all American flags as Old Glory. And the name stuck.

And so, almost 150 years later, in the midst of another period of America divided, it is worth remembering that, on that day in 1862, when America faced untenable division, Old Glory became the symbol of America united. I say it is worth remembering because, ironically, President Bush and his Rovian Republicans are doing exactly what the Confederate forces did: trying to use Old Glory to divide America.


Listening to the ranting of the conservative radio announcer, I consider this: by using a flag burning amendment to divide Americans, the Rovian Republicans are using the physical Old Glory to undermine the fundamental rights enshrined in the symbolic Old Glory - that is, the rights enshrined in the United States Constitution, among them these: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

By focusing our attention on the physical protection of Old Glory, the Rovian Republicans are changing the unifying meaning of symbolic Old Glory. If it works, we may well lose the meaning of America. And listening to the ranting of the conservative radio announcer, I consider this, too: this may well be what President Bush and his Rovian Republicans want.

Steven Laffoley ( is an American writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is the author of "Mr. Bush, Angus and Me: Notes of An American-Canadian in the Age of Unreason."


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