I am your belief in yourself, your dream of what a people may become….
Franklin Knight Lane
With Flag Day in the rear-view mirror and the Fourth of July on the horizon, it might be a good time to take a moment and contemplate Old Glory. Since June 14, 1777, when the Second Continental Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes as the nation’s standard, it (along, apparently, with Coca-Cola) has become one of the most recognized symbols on the planet. Lane was speaking of the flag as a symbol when he made these remarks in a 1914 speech. In the speech, he repeated the words he imagined the flag might have spoken to him when he saw it waving in a breeze earlier that morning. At the time he was serving as the Secretary of the Interior in the Wilson Administration, after having previously been appointed to the Interstate Commerce Commission in both the Roosevelt and Taft administrations. His seven-year service as Secretary was considered a mixed bag by many. To the negative, he supported the contentious Hetch Hetchy Reservoir project which flooded a pristine valley in Yosemite National Park. To the positive, he established the National Park Service. What was never questioned, however, was his deep love of country. In repeating the flag’s words, he deeply probed the nation’s psyche and found much more than simple patriotic fervor, nationalism and pride.
On the other hand, patriotic fervor, nationalism and raw pride were dominant components in the psyche of Lane’s previous boss—Theodore Roosevelt. A pragmatic man of action, Roosevelt wasn’t reticent about his devotion to country and his respect for the flag. As the story goes, while dining out one evening, the President observed a man blowing his nose on the flag. Incensed, Roosevelt sprang from his table, grabbed a handily nearby wooden rod and began whacking the man for, “defacing the symbol of America.” After the fifth blow, he realized the man had been using a blue handkerchief printed with white stars and not the flag. Apologizing profusely for his mistake, Roosevelt delivered one final whack to the man for making him, “riled up with national pride.” Though the story has a strong whiff of the apocryphal about it, there’s no mistaking its underlying accuracy. Old Glory has the pride-fueled power to move folks to rash and immediate actions.
Lane and Roosevelt give us two different, though complimentary, views of what the flag means. Roosevelt puts on display a variation of his “big stick” diplomacy. For him, the flag represents a deep sense of national pride that tolerates no disrespect. His is a broad perspective. He sees the flag as a symbol for who we are and what we’ve done. Lane’s view is introspective. He sees the flag and he sees himself and every other individual American. For Lane, the flag is a symbol of personal responsibility and collective potential. It’s a call to action and a call to exceed what we’ve already achieved. Roosevelt looks back with pride and confidence about what we’ve accomplished as a people. Lane calls us to look forward with an invigorated self-confidence toward an uncertain future. It’s a future we must first imagine and then make a reality. When we’ve achieved the dream we can look back in satisfaction before dreaming yet again and building an even better future. We’ll be seeing a lot of the flag between now and the Fourth. When we see those bright colors, let’s celebrate pride in our past and each commit to dynamically building a better future. —Ebert