All Commentary
Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The American Spirit Dwells in Ideals, Not Symbols

Deviations from high principles do not justify rejecting those principles.

NFL protests involving the flag have certainly created misunderstanding and division, boosting blood pressure far and wide. And they have established beyond a doubt that Americans are far apart in how they interpret our flag.

The meaning of the American flag, like any symbol, is to a large degree in the eye of the beholder. It can be interpreted in many ways, including mutually inconsistent ones, making useful dialog difficult and unproductive rhetoric more common. For instance, I might think the flag represents certain principles, while you think it represents failures to live up to those principles.

Consequently, if we argue about the flag, while ignoring that its symbolism is subjective, signifying different and even sharply opposed things to different groups, disunity is a predictable result. This is the case even if each participant desires unity.

“Old Glory”

Better results might arise if, instead, we made clear the positions and underlying principles we start from and recognize that they will be imperfectly realized by any human institution. For instance, I find the view of Henry Ward Beecher – described as “America’s leading moral and spiritual teacher” a century and a half ago – most edifying because, to him, the flag represents the principle of liberty.

Our flag… means… the rising up of a valiant young people against an old tyranny to establish the most momentous doctrine that the world has ever known – the right of men to their own selves and to their liberties. It means all that the Declaration of Independence meant. It means all that the Constitution of our people, organizing for justice, for liberty, and for happiness, meant.

Unfortunately, many today do not see that in our flag. Some, reflecting our cynical age, believe that anything valuable that the flag once represented is now lost. Others see it as a symbol of a system that they blame for frustrations and failures. Political correctness makes still others see nothing, afraid of any implication that one set of beliefs could be better than others. Beecher thought differently.

A thoughtful mind, when it sees a nation’s flag, sees…the principles, the truths, the history that belongs to the nation that sets it forth…the American flag is the symbol of liberty, and men rejoiced in it. Not another flag has had such an errand, carrying everywhere, the world around, such hope for freedom – such glorious tidings.

Some have hostile or ambivalent reactions to our flag because many, in government and out, have not only fallen far short of America’s ideals but substantially undermined them. That is true, if unsurprising, in a government of people rather than angels. Because I am committed to liberty, I share in mourning our deviations from it, but that doesn’t detract from liberty as the ideal.

Our flag carries American ideas, American history…it has gathered and stored chiefly this supreme idea: Divine Right of Liberty in man. Every color means liberty; every form of star and beam or stripe of light means liberty…liberty through law, and law for liberty.

The Emblem of the Land I Love, the Home of the Free and the Brave

There is no dispute that America has fallen short of its lofty ideals. But if we recognize, with Beecher, that “the history of this banner is one of Liberty” and work to reclaim our founding vision of providing the broadest possible canvas for human freedom, we could make today’s world far better.

This American Flag was the safeguard of liberty…It was an ordinance of liberty by the people, for the people. That it meant, that it means, and, by the blessing of God, that it shall mean to the end of time!

Henry Ward Beecher’s vision of our flag was that of our founders’ hopes. It is true that past and present actions have fallen short of those aspirations. But deviations from high principles do not justify rejecting those principles; they demonstrate why they are essential.

If we could focus on our common ideals, and put them into action, rather than talking past one another and exaggerating differences, we might find again that we disagree less than now seems apparent and move closer to the vision “that every man shall have liberty to be what God made him, without hindrance.”

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).