Long may she wave

Red, white and blue.

To many they’re just crayons in a box, but for Americans, those three particular colors mean so much more, don’t they?

We think of Old Glory waving in front of the high school marching band in a Fourth of July parade. For some just hearing “red, white and blue” brings vivid memories of eating your weight in hot dogs and watermelon at a picnic sponsored by the local Lions Club right before watching the night sky fill with fireworks. To others they bring to mind the sobering and jarring sound of a 21-gun salute cracking the air in a quiet cemetery. And yes, to many they’re used as shorthand for political divisions, red versus blue.

Funny thing, though, that’s not what the Continental Congress had in mind when it passed an act on June 14, 1777, establishing an official flag of the nation. A flag that sported 13 alternating red and white stripes representing the 13 colonies and 13 white stars on a blue field representing a new constellation. In the more than 200 years since, she’s undergone some changes, of course. Old Glory now sports 50 white stars, one for each state in the growing union, but those stripes of red and white with the field of blue are still there.

Red, white and blue—they’re symbolic themselves, did you know that? Now, while the flag resolution never states the significance of the three colors for the flag, we can see that in the resolution adopting the Great Seal of the United States in 1782 that there is significance attached to the three colors. Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress, explained, as he presented the Great Seal for approval, that the colors reflect those used in the flag. He said the red symbolizes hardiness and valor, white is for innocence, and blue represents vigilance, perseverance and justice.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan added to the legend of the flag by stating that “red was for courage and readiness to sacrifice; white for pure intentions and high ideals; and blue for vigilance and justice.”  

Interesting to note that political parties aren’t mentioned in either explanation.

There are three colors to our flag that identifies our nation, but all anyone seems to talk about are red or blue. Red states and blue states. Republicans or Democrats. Identifiers that have gone from being dividing markers on the field of politics, to all out fighting words between friends and family who disagree.

We overlook the white stars and stripes that have their own meanings and place on the flag too.

Take the white stars neatly lined up in rows on the blue field. You can’t differentiate between Kansas’ star on the flag and California’s, or New York’s, or West Virginia’s, can you? They aren’t set off with different stitching or other identifying markers. They are all the same on the flag, even though in real life they are states with residents that are diverse in their political opinions and beliefs, their backgrounds and their views on modern agriculture. One might say the states are united on the flag.

Consider the six white stripes, alternating with seven red stripes. Now together even school children know they represent the original 13 colonies. But we forget that those colonies were filled with visionary rebels who mustered up courage to break free from tyranny and create a new nation. In that struggle—that Revolutionary War—there was red blood shed for those future high ideals of a nation where all men are created equal and are guaranteed the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Those stripes don’t just represent 13 colonies, but our nation’s history of always fighting for something better for ourselves and our posterity.

The American Flag is not a historical artifact or a holy relic. Figuratively, it is a living symbol of our nation’s past, present and future. The founders may not have been explicit in their reasons, but they must have known that we cannot just have valor and justice as a nation. We also need the pure intentions and high ideals to make this grand experiment work for all.

So, for this July 4, while you’re setting out the sparklers and hoisting Old Glory, take a moment and reflect on what red, white and blue means to you.

And long may that banner wave.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or [email protected].