Flag Day, Past and Present

Today’s post is by Rod Ross, a former archivist in the Center for Legislative Archives, who retired in April with 41 years of government service.  His interest in this holiday began at birth–on Flag Day during World War II!  Shortly after the war his family moved to Batavia, Illinois, where the Father of Flag Day, Bernard Cigrand (1866-1932), spent the final decade of his life.

The day of the centennial has come:  the 100th anniversary of President Woodrow Wilson’s proclamation formally recognizing June 14 as Flag Day. The designation is based on the June 14, 1777, resolution of the Second Continental Congress declaring that the flag of the thirteen United States would be thirteen stripes, alternating red and white, with “the union” to be made up of thirteen stars “white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”


Flag petition 1861.JPG

Petition from the Union Fire Company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in Support of the Crittenden Compromise, ca. 1861 (National Archives 306495)

Petition from the Union Fire Company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in Support of the Crittenden Compromise

With the approach of World War I, different groups and organizations came up with various ways to stimulate patriotism, including shows of reverence towards the flag.  Among them was a man generally recognized as the Father of Flag Day: Bernard J. Cigrand, a Wisconsin grade-school teacher turned dentist.

The high point of Cigrand’s campaign came with Wilson’s Flag Day proclamation that began:  “Many circumstances have recently conspired to turn our thoughts to a critical examination of the conditions of our national life, of the influences which have seemed to threaten to divide us in interest and sympathy, of forces within and forces without that seemed likely to draw us away from the happy traditions of united purpose and action of which we have been so proud.”

Accordingly, President Wilson urged that for 1916, and the years to come, the nation observe June 14 as Flag Day, a day for “special patriotic exercises . . .”

Thirty years later in 1949, in another time of international strife, President Harry Truman signed a joint resolution of Congress designating June 14 of each year as Flag Day.


In 1984 a protester outside the Republican National Convention in Dallas burned an American flag.  He was arrested.  In the aftermath, in 1989, by a five to four decision, the Supreme Court in Texas v. Johnson held that flag burning was a form of symbolic speech (“Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable”) and thus was protected by the First Amendment.

This key question, “Does flag burning equal free speech?” is addressed in our Amending America exhibit (at the National Archives through September 4, 2017).

Today the American flag continues to hold public attention.  Presumably it is not by chance that the National Gallery of Art’s current show “Three Centuries of American Prints” features a Jasper Johns flag print for the poster highlighting the exhibition.

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