Some Thoughts on National Symbols

Among all forms of Patriotism that can be adopted by the American people, there can be none greater, or more inclined towards our natural state of being, than that Patriotism that inspires a sincere love and defense of liberty. It is, after all, a revelation, not only into the individual character of the people but also the true temperament of the nation itself. How? By exposing the nature of what lies behind our love of country, as well as the spirit in which we honor its institutions. In truth, our country, our great experiment in republican government, loses all meaning, and cannot long exist, except in the triumph of our devotion to the rights and the freedoms of the individual within that society.

To understand this definition of Patriotism one need only look to that first great struggle that bore this nation.

BE023015-PIn that great crisis, what defined the American spirit, indomitable and unwavering, was not symbols, institutions or even national allegiance. In fact, these traditions, they had been cast off. No longer would allegiance be sworn to the Crown, nor would glasses raise to the chants of “God Save the King,” nor would Imperial flags raise over the governments of the colonies. Cast from these shores would be the cloak of British Nationalism, as the ties of union to the Mother Country were now severed. Amidst that Revolution, a redefining of patriotism was to occur.

Today we look back on that chapter in our history with a degree of reverence, draped in the institutions and the symbols that have been born out of our new national identity. Yet what we almost seem to forget that many of these did not exist, and those that were adopted within the time frame of those early days were not elevated to the status in which we hold them now until some generations later. No, what now bound them, united as Americans, with differing histories, traditions, and regional interests, was the desire for liberty, and a love of freedom. It called to them as they took to the countryside of Massachusetts, and the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. It cried out to them in the immortal words that dripped from Thomas Jefferson’s pen declaring our Independence. It was heard from Independence Hall through the battlefields where the blood and broken bodies of patriots stained the ground.

imagesFor them, when no national unity could be found, when no national identity could be considered, it was ultimately forged through a greater, more profound understanding of what it meant to be citizens of this new republic. So jealously did they guard that idea that to be American meant to be free that a complete Union could not be achieved until steps were taken to entrench the rights of the individual, the rights endowed upon us by nature and our Creator, in the charter of our political freedom. This is what, in the long course of human events, set this nation apart as different.

Now, over 200 years later, we cannot simply look to this early understanding of Patriotism, of love of country as just a matter of history. We must take the deeper lessons that were taught and consider for ourselves the more profound application that they can have for our lives, and for the strengthening of our country today. It is only in that way that we are then capable of expanding the scope and the meaning of liberty within the framework that had been clearly established for us.

In a sense, in a very real sense, this represents a challenge for us. We have grown accustomed to the symbols that represent our nation, while taking for granted what ultimately lies behind them. We have, in many ways, failed to realize that all else is meaningless unless our first allegiance is to liberty, that without liberty, or the rights that accompany it, we have no national identity to pledge our spirit of patriotism to. It allows us, in defense of country, to silence opposition, to question the love of country, and infringe upon the rights of the individual in the name of country and the spirit of unity. It allows us, in the name of the republic, to protect the symbols of it, while failing to afford to individuals the rights that those symbols are intended to represent.

untitledIt isn’t to say that our national symbols are not important. Absolutely they are. In our greatest victories, they have stood shimmering in the golden sun, in our darkest days, they have been a symbol of hope, and strength. In the grim, bleak days of Civil War that gripped our nation, our flag stood as a defiant show of union even as the bonds of nationhood laid tattered on the ground. For almost 100 years we have, through incredible challenges, found the courage to move forward as we sang the words to the Star-Spangled Banner. For over 100 years before that, it stood as a defiant reminder of the indomitable American Spirit, one that would triumph over all adversity.

These have power and significance. That is undeniable. Yet the inherent danger is that, in this, the symbol, though important to national identity, becomes more important than what it intended to represent, and thus the actual meaning is lost.

We have seen this in our society when, for example, the right of the individual or the group to protest, becomes secondary to what some would consider honoring our national symbols. Patriotism, respect for country, even the love of liberty, is called into question. By wrapping ourselves in the flag alone we fail to wrap ourselves in the rights and the freedom that it is intended to represent. It is what causes us to reprimand, seeking to silence voices that are doing nothing more than exercising the liberties that we, at one point, recognized as existing long before there was a nation and a people that upheld them as their own.

Yet more patriotic than a basic adherence to any national symbol, or institution is the free exercise of an individual’s liberty. For though our brave men and women may have fallen under our flag, or were buried in a flag-covered coffin, giving to their country and its people “the last full measure of their devotion,” it was not for these symbols that they sacrificed for, but rather what these symbols embodied. The question then becomes how do we truly honor their sacrifice? By venerating the symbol alone, or by venerating the rights preserved under that symbol? What we must, after all, remember is that it is the values, the principles and the ideals that lie beneath that offer the true meaning of these symbols. Without them, they hold no significance.

We may not like how one exercises their liberties. It can even make us uncomfortable. Yet, as it does, it gives purpose and meaning to the way we understand our national symbol, stirring us amidst our own complacency. It forces us to ask tough questions and to challenge ourselves in the reverence that we do have for these institutions. In these moments it should cause us to question the cause and the source of our Patriotism, and what it is intended to mean for us.

bill-of-rights-ABIn this, we must have the proper form of Patriotism, the kind of Patriotism that calls us to be better citizens. It is the kind that demands of us that we extend our understanding of equality, and the bounds of freedom, evolving to a deeper understanding of what liberty means, not just in our lives, but in the lives of all Americans. We must have the proper form of Patriotism that honors and values our fellow citizen, upholding and uplifting their independence, even when, in applying their rights, we find that we hate how they utilize them.

It is then that we honor what this country means, and those ideals in which it was founded.

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