Toward a More Perfect Union

Gold-medal winner Justin Gatlin at the 2004 Olympics
Gold-medal winner Justin Gatlin at the 2004 Olympics (Thomas Kienzle / Ap)
Reviewed by Richard J. Ellis
Sunday, June 12, 2005

FLAG: An American Biography

By Marc Leepson

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's. 334 pp. $24.95


Ten Ideals That Shaped Our Country

From the Puritans to the Cold War

By Neil Baldwin. St. Martin's. 253 pp. $24.95

Flags were everywhere after Sept. 11, 2001: attached to car antennas, worn as pins and patches, hung from windows and buildings. Among the most impressive was a flag measuring half the length of a football field that Ricoh Corporation and Tahari Fashions unfurled to cover their shared five-story New York City office building. The gargantuan flag, explained Ricoh's president, was "another way to show the [human] spirit." Not everyone viewed the flag displays so positively. The Nation's Katha Pollitt refused to let her daughter fly the American flag from their living-room window because it "stands for jingoism and vengeance and war." Pollitt lamented that there "are no symbolic representations right now for the things the world really needs -- equality and justice and humanity and solidarity and intelligence."

The many different meanings Americans have attached to their flag are conscientiously explored in Marc Leepson's new "biography" of the American flag. In the early years of the republic, Leepson reminds us, the flag carried little of the emotional freight that it bears today. The Star-Spangled Banner waved over military forts, naval ships and commercial vessels, but ordinary Americans back then would not have dreamed of flying it themselves. Gradually the flag became a more important symbol in American life, but not until the fall of Fort Sumter in 1861 did it become the preeminent patriotic symbol that it has remained to this day.

Leepson's narrative of the development of Americans' flag fetish includes a number of tales well worth telling, especially the late-19th-century fabrication of the myth that a seamstress by the name of Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag. But the story sags at times under the weight of dates and facts, as well as occasionally lifeless prose. In describing an 1865 Civil War victory parade, for instance, Leepson notes that Washington, D.C., "still mourning President Lincoln's assassination, did not go all out during those two days in the flag-display department however."

Leepson, the author of Saving Monticello , is scrupulously evenhanded and reports what others have said and done about the flag with a minimum of editorializing. The tales of flag protesters and flag promoters are often colorful, but they do not necessarily add up to an answer to the important question with which Leepson frames his book: "why the American flag looms so large in the social, political, and emotional hearts and minds of millions of Americans." He suggests "that part of the answer has to do with the fact that the United States is a nation of immigrants." Unfortunately, this hypothesis is not pursued or evaluated. Leepson is better at documenting "the near religious fervor" that many Americans feel for the flag than he is at explaining it.

Leepson concludes that the "simple fact is that -- despite its changing meaning over the years -- since 1777 the American flag has symbolized the values and ideals upon which this nation was built." He is perhaps guilty of overstating his case here -- it is difficult to reconcile this "simple fact" with his own earlier observation that "in the post-Revolutionary War era, the flag, as a symbol of the nation, played a minor role" -- but he is surely correct that throughout most of American history the flag has represented not only a nation but a set of ideals.

Those ideals are the subject of Neil Baldwin's fine book, The American Revelation . In 10 engaging and well-written individual portraits, Baldwin uses representative figures to explore important ideals that have "shaped our country." He selects some well-known Americans (John Winthrop, Thomas Paine, Ralph Waldo Emerson), some lesser-known ones (Jane Addams, Henry George) and some who are virtually unknown (such as Pierre Eugène Du Simitière, whom Baldwin credits with creating the motto "E Pluribus Unum," which adorns the national seal).

One of Baldwin's most revealing chapters offers a sympathetic look at John L. O'Sullivan, the Jacksonian newspaper editor who coined the term "manifest destiny" and was a tireless propagandist for America's westward expansion during the 1830s and '40s. Baldwin recaptures the intense idealism that fired O'Sullivan's imagination. For him, America meant liberation from "the tyranny of kings, hierarchs and oligarchs," a nation "of progress, of individual freedom, of universal enfranchisement." America's westward march bore no resemblance to "invasions and conquests in the old world" of Europe, O'Sullivan insisted. "We are above and beyond the influence of such views. We take from no man; the reverse rather -- we give to man. . . . we can, therefore, afford to scorn the invective and imputations of rival nations." The world has nothing to fear from America because its ideals are the ideals of humanity.

Baldwin points out this vision's darker side. O'Sullivan's universalistic vision of freedom and democracy coexisted with, and often degenerated into, a belief in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race and the inferiority of Native American "savages" and the peoples of "imbecile Mexico." His faith in America's manifest destiny was not only racially but religiously inspired; God had chosen the American people for their "sacred mission" of bringing liberty and democracy to the world. And there lies the rub. The ideals of liberty and democracy certainly have universal appeal, but the belief that the United States is the divinely appointed vessel for their transmission is profoundly parochial. America's flag may signify admirable universal values, but those who wave it are generally expressing pride in their particular nation-state, a nation-state in which they happened to be born. Nationalism garbed as universalism is still nationalism. An idealistic empire is still an empire. Indeed, the idealistic empire can be more dangerous, for its builders can more readily delude themselves into believing that what is good for the nation is good for the world.

The American Revelation is certainly not a plea for rejecting American idealism; indeed, the book celebrates that idealism. But it prompts us to reconsider certain aspects of our ideals. The final chapter examines the pragmatic idealism of George Marshall and his ambitious plan to rebuild Western Europe after World War II. Here Baldwin shows us an American idealism shorn of O'Sullivan's millennial convictions and parochial zeal. Marshall, in Baldwin's telling, is an American idealist who wished to use American power for humanitarian ends, to forestall calamity and ameliorate suffering. Marshall's life shows that one can reject O'Sullivan's arrogant imperialism without retreating into the isolationism evoked by Winthrop's image of America as a city on a hill and without abandoning idealism altogether for the pursuit of narrow national self-interest. Maybe then flying the flag could become a symbol for "the things the world really needs" rather than just the things that America wants. ·

Richard J. Ellis is a professor of politics at Willamette University and author of "To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company