Flag of Freedom, Union of Light and Law

“Shoot if you must this old gray head, but spare your country’s flag,” she said.


Given how important flags were to the Capitol Hill insurrectionists last week, here’s John Greenleaf’s Whittier’s poem about how a true patriot wields a flag. I remember the poem vividly from my childhood.

Among the worst things recorded during the Capitol invasion is a man with an American flag beating a Capitol police officer with the pole to which it is attached. Another video clip shows Trump rioters tearing down an American flag to replace it with a Trump flag.

We also see see rioters carrying Confederate flags into the Capitol, the first time that the symbol of secession has entered those hallowed halls. And let’s not forget that, over the summer, the Trump campaign actually replaced an American flag with a Blues Lives Matter flag at a Wisconsin rally.

There’s also the tragic-comic story of the rioter who, after entering the Capitol carrying the Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flag of 1775, died when she was trampled during the melee.

In Whittier’s poem, which my grandson and I read on Monday, 90-year-old Barbara Frietchie witnesses her Frederick, Maryland neighbors pulling down their American flags as General Stonewall Jackson and his “famished rebel horde” approaches the city. As Whittier recounts,

Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,

Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.

 In Friday’s civics poetry lesson, Alban and I learned from Ralph Waldo Emerson that a nation is strong when it has “brave men who work while others sleep,/ Who dare while others fly.” Frietchie proves to be one of these brave men:

Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;

In her attic window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.

Then, after Jackson orders the men to fire upon the flag,

Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf;

She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.

“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.

Unlike today’s rebels, the Confederate general shows a glimmer of remorse and accords his opponent some respect:

A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;

The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman’s deed and word:

“Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!” he said.

As a result, the star-spangled banner continues to wave:

All day long that free flag tost
Over the heads of the rebel host.

Ever its torn folds rose and fell
On the loyal winds that loved it well;

And through the hill-gaps sunset light
Shone over it with a warm good-night.

Let us remember this moment, the poet tells us:

Barbara Frietchie’s work is o’er,
And the Rebel rides on his raids no more.

Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewall’s bier.

Over Barbara Frietchie’s grave
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!

Peace and order and beauty draw
Round thy symbol of light and law;

And ever the stars above look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town!

We could only wish that the GOP would show the same kind of respect for their Democratic foes as Jackson does. And experience a momentary blush of shame for trying to steal the election.

While sharing these poems with Alban, I thought back to my own citizenship education. In addition to reading and sometimes memorizing poems like this, each morning we pledged allegiance to the flag. I don’t understand why some liberals object to the pledge given that it ends with the resounding declaration “with liberty and justice for all.” That powerful vision, reaffirming the words of The Declaration of Independence, are an integral part of what makes us a nation.

To be sure, we fall short of that vision all the time, but that’s not the flag’s fault. The pledge makes clear that the flag “stands” for our republic, which is “one nation, under God, indivisible.” We can be disappointed by how the republic falls short but not by the ideal itself.

As for “God,” which some people object to, think of it as the transcendent non-material spirit that guides us. Unless you are Hobbesian materialist who sees all relations defined by self-interest or a Foucauldian who reduces everything to power struggle, your idealism will have a spiritual component.

Flag of freedom and union, symbol of light and law, long may you wave. Those who use you for base purposes are the true desecrators.

Further thought: While we honor people who stands up to the forces of sedition, let’s recall Eugene Goodman, the black Capitol cop who lured rioters away from the Senate chambers while it still held members of Congress. By making himself a decoy, he may well have saved people from being held hostage or even killed.

According to the Washington Post, a colleague observed that Goodman “was diverting people from getting on the Senate floor and getting hostages. It was the smartest thing that he could have ever done. I don’t know that many people who can think on their feet like that. . . . His quick thinking enabled those Senators to get to safety.” One tactic he employed was prodding the lead rioter with his baton at just the moment when the mob could have turned right and discovered the Senate floor. Instead they chased him up the stairs, where he had reinforcements waiting.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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