The American Flag: History, Controversy, and Commentary

The American flag was officially adopted as a special symbol of the United States on June 14, 1777. First celebrated locally in northern states during the Civil War, June 14th wasn’t officially established as Flag Day until President Woodrow Wilson made a proclamation in 1916. President Harry S. Truman proceeded to sign it into law in 1949. Although not an official federal holiday, Flag Day is an official state holiday in JMC’s home state of Pennsylvania.

In recognition of Flag Day, the Jack Miller Center presents the following collection of resources about the American flag, focusing on the constitutional questions that it has raised. Indeed, the “star spangled banner” has been at the center of several First Amendment controversies. The religious character of the Pledge of Allegiance, always recited while facing the flag, has been challenged at the state and national levels. The flag’s status as a symbol of the American government has made it a frequent target of activist anger, raising the constitutional question of whether or not its desecration in political protests is protected speech.

Below is a collection of resources recognizing the importance of this symbol of our great country. Browse these resources or jump from section to section by clicking the links below:

Selected online resources on Abraham Lincoln:

By Dawn's Early Light, 1912What So Proudly We Hail

The What So Proudly We Hail online curriculum offers an ebook, “The Meaning of Flag Day” that explores the history and significance of the American flag with selections from American authors and statesmen, including Francis Scott Key, Walt Whitman, Stephen Crane, Abraham Lincoln, and John McCain. Each selection includes a brief introduction by the editors with guiding questions for discussion. This eBook also includes a lesson plan on the American flag and the First Amendment by teacher Anne Continetti.

Explore the eBook here >>



Rasing of the American flag over Iwo JimaA visual history of the American flag from the National Archives

The National Archives spotlights the American flag in this collection of historical images celebrating Flag Day.

View National Archives images here >>




Betsy Ross & General WashingtonThe Story of Betsy Ross

Betsy Ross serves as a legendary figure in the story of our flag. The Betsy Ross House website explores her involvement in its creation.

Read about Betsy Ross here >>



*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on the flag or its history and controversies, and would like your work included here, send it to us at

Resources from JMC’s Constitution Day Library:


Backlit American flagMinersville School District v. Gobitis (1940)

The Supreme Court ruled that the government could require respect for the flag as a key symbol of national unity and as a means of preserving national security. In 1943, the Court reversed this ruling in another case, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.

Read more about this case in our
Constitution Day Library >>



Classroom, early 20th centuryWest Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)

In this case, the Court found that the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment protects students from being forced to salute the American flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance in public school.

Read more about this case in our
Constitution Day library >>



William Kunstler and Gregory Lee JohnsonTexas v. Johnson (1989)

Texas v. Johnson reaffirmed that the burning of the American flag was protected under the First Amendment as symbolic speech.

Read more about the case in our
Constitution Day library >>




Commentary and articles from JMC fellows:


Children Pledging Allegiance, 1942The Pledge of Allegiance


Charles Kesler, Pledge Issue Reveals Rift in America’s View of Itself.” (Los Angeles Times, October 3, 1988)

Vincent Phillip Muñoz, “Saving the Pledge.(First Things, January 2005)

John A. Ragosta, “Can there be a Rational Compromise on the Pledge of Allegiance?” (The Washington Post, April 23, 2014)





Flag burningFlag Desecration


Stephen Presser, “Between Free Speech and the Flag: America faces a divide of legal gray area in the battle to protect Old Glory.” (American Legion Magazine 155.1, July 2003)

Stephen Presser, The U.S. Congress is Duty-Bound to Pass the Flag Amendment.” (American Legion Magazine 160.6, June 2006)

Jonathan W. White (with Daniel Glenn and Rachel Wagner), “We Didn’t Start the Fire: The Unknown History of Flag Desecration in America.” (The Federal Lawyer, October/November 2017)





*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on the flag or its history and controversies, and would like your work included here, send it to us at



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