The Enduring Principles of Liberty

This month some UC Irvine students removed a U.S. flag from the student government area. That triggered a controversy including criticisms that our flag was associated with nationalism, colonialism, imperialism, American exceptionalism, racism, xenophobia and other sins against leftist orthodoxy. It mainly showed how far America has “progressed” since the Second Continental Congress authorized a new American flag.

Thank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!

Criticism that the U.S. is an imperfect country is true. But imperfections shared by the history and some members of every country does not justify condemnation reserved for America. More importantly, it is not the flag, but those who deviate from the principles it represents, who are tarnished by our failings.

Perhaps the most inspiring view of our flag was given in an 1861 address by Henry Ward Beecher, described as “the most respected and idealized religious figure of the day” and “America’s leading moral and spiritual teacher.” At a time when many have lost touch with the ideals of our experiment in freedom, it is worth revisiting:

[O]ur flag…means just what Concord and Lexington meant, what Bunker Hill meant. It means the whole glorious Revolutionary War…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, see anything valuable it once represented as now lost. Others see it as a symbol of a system they wish to blame for their frustrations and failures, rather than themselves. Political correctness makes still others see nothing, afraid of any implication that they might think one set of beliefs could be better than others. Beecher found all those approaches faulty.

A thoughtful mind, when it sees a nation’s flag, sees not the flag only, but the nation itself…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.

Still other Americans attack, rather than defend, what our flag represents, because many who have been part of our government have abandoned or fallen far short of America’s ideals. That is true, if unsurprising, in a government of fallible people. But it in no way detracts from our country’s ideals.

Our flag carries American ideas, American history, and American feelings…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; not lawlessness, not license, but organized institutional liberty–liberty through law, and law for liberty.

Those who, because America falls short of its ideals, have mixed or even hostile feelings toward our flag and the country it represents are misplacing their idealism and efforts. If they recognized, with Beecher, that “The history of this banner is one of Liberty,” and put their energy into reclaiming our founding vision of providing the broadest possible canvas for human freedom, they could reshape the world for the better instead of endlessly repeating grievances.

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 America, symbolized in our flag, echoed our founders’ ideals “that every man shall have liberty to be what God made him, without hindrance.” Americans have too often abandoned that vision. But violations of high principles do not justify rejecting such principles; they demonstrate why they are essential.

Gary Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University

Speak Your Mind