The history of the American flag is the story of a nation struggling to find its identity, Woden Teachout argues in her new book, Capture the Flag: A Political History of American Patriotism. Teachout, a professor of graduate studies in history and culture at the online Union Institute and University, recently spoke with U.S. News about the evolving meaning of the flag in American culture. Excerpts:
What led you to write this book?
After 9/11, there was the buildup to the Iraq war. I went to one of those demonstrations in February of 2003, which were some of the largest demonstrations in world history, and I took an American flag to one of these demonstrations. People couldn't believe that I was there. When they saw the flag, they saw it as a pro-war symbol. I saw it as a symbol of democracy and people telling their government what policies to pursue. It was this really startling moment for me.
What does the history of the flag tell us about the United States?
It tells a lot. This is not about Betsy Ross. It's about using the flag as a lens into understanding the traditions of American patriotism, what those traditions have been, and how they function politically. One of the interesting things that has come out of this is that there are two real traditions of patriotism. There's this nationalist tradition, which many people think of when they think of patriotism. It emphasizes subscription to government policies. It has a lot of ritual involved. It's really about loyalty—that's the key thing. Loyalty to a group of people and to a government. And at the same time, there's this other tradition, which is the humanitarian tradition. And that is more focused on ideals, and the government becomes a means of realizing those ideals, rather than the subject of loyalty itself. So that humanitarian tradition has been around. It hasn't been tapped into too much in the last generation, but it's there.
When did the flag first become the symbol of patriotism we know it to be?
The 1890s. The Civil War is the moment where you begin to see it all over the country. But the 1890s is the first moment in peacetime when people would actually fly flags over their houses.
What does the flag stand for today?
There are so many things. I think that it's undergoing a real transformation right now. The way that we think about the flag now has really been shaped from the Vietnam era. And the ways in which it was used as a pro-Nixon and pro-war symbol and it continued to have a fairly strong pro-war meaning during the last 40 years. I think what we see now is that Obama tried to take that back quite a bit. He really works the rhetoric of patriotism.
So President Obama is divorcing patriotism from hawkishness?
That is my point. The flag was often taken to antiwar rallies in the beginning of the Vietnam War era. What started to happen was that people who were organizing against the war became very disillusioned with their government. And they saw the flag as a symbol of that.
Is the history of the flag the history of a symbol being co-opted for political use?
That's, I think, the cynical version. The flag becomes a symbol—I say in the book that the story of the flag is a story of a country in search of itself. The flag and the rhetoric of patriotism become a way to legitimize different visions of what this country might look like and to attach those visions to this whole broader history. So, obviously, sometimes people use it cynically, and they're very clever about it. But I don't think you can say that most people are using it in that way.
Is the flag unique in that manner? Are there other symbols that play that role?
It's the most powerful one.
How does patriotism in the 21st century differ from patriotism in the 20th century?
Obviously, there was that really extraordinary moment after 9/11—I think it was one of the few moments in my lifetime—when there was this sense of national unity that was so strong. And then, of course, we had the war, and that's been quite divisive in terms of the flag. I don't see a change. It has been the nationalist tradition predominating quite strongly in the first eight years of this century. I see a humanitarian element coming out, but I don't think it's a moment of total transformation.