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America's First Mistake

We Chose the Wrong Flag.

by James Leroy Wilson
May 1, 2003

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America's First Mistake_James Leroy Wilson-We Chose the Wrong Flag. As a child, I lived many years in Canada as an American immigrant, and even though I haven't been back in a long time, I have a fondness for the country and people. And two things I admire most about the nation are two of its most prominent signifiers of national identity.

The first is the National Anthem: "Oh, Canada!" In sentiment, it is the Canadian equivalent to "America the Beautiful" but it gets its point across in one verse instead of four. And it is as equally singable. Yet its melody is of a slower, more solemn pace, more appropriate for ceremonies with color guards and brass bands, which is probably why the United States chose the plodding, unsingable "Star-Spangled Banner" as its own Anthem.

The second is the Maple Leaf flag. National flags tend to feature stars, bars, or crosses. There are only four genuinely distinct national flags: Britain's Union Jack, which features three crosses, the American flag, featuring lots and lots of stars and tiny bars (stripes), Israel's with the distinctive Star of David, and Canada's Maple Leaf. Other peoples of the world, after recognizing their own national flags, would recognize these four flags more than any other. I've glanced at the rest (Oh, the research we do here in the Swamp!) and seems to me that no other flag is ever recognized, only, at best, memorized. You have to remember which three colors go with which country, or which obscure seal or symbol belongs to whom.

Canada's flag is simplicity and symbolism perfected. Following the common flag scheme of three vertical bars, it places a red maple leaf in the central bar of white, with red bars on the side. The Maple Leaf signifies "Canada".

And like the anthem, the flag refers to the land. Not to ideology, not to religion, but to land. The northern land, where the maple leaves grow. The land is home, the land demands patriotism just because it is "our home and native land."

No better connection between a State and a Country has there been, than Canada's maple leaf flag. With the Union Jack, or the Stars and Stripes, or the Star of David, the flag signfies imperialism, ideology, and religion. But you see the maple leaf, and you think, "Oh, that's Canada!"

So Canada, home of the America's British colonies that did not rebel, did at least those two things right. That said, let's admit, for the sake of argument, that the American colonies were right in seceding from the British Empire. That the American Revolution was just.

The picture you see on the side, or a variation of it, is called the Gadsden flag, and it was flown in many, particularly naval, military engagements against the British during the Revolutionary War. It has a history developing from a Benjamin Franklin political cartoon in the 1750's, and information on its evolution can be found at this website. Alas, the Stars and Stripes was also developed and being used, and General George Washington preferred the latter.

That was a mistake.

As Benjamin Franklin put it, the rattlesnake is a distinctly American animal. It keeps to itself, except when bothered. And it doesn't attack; it only bites after a fair warning from its rattles has been given that its space has been threatened. And even its bite, in most cases, doesn't kill; its harmful venom is more a warning to be on the lookout lest you "tread on me" again.

Words verbally spoken, have power. But words written, because they are preserved and can be re-read time and again, have greater power. But symbols - pictures - have even greater power, as would word reminders of the symbols, such as the words "American Flag." You hear or read the words, you can't help but conjure the picture of the flag. And with that symbol in mind, you will think of whatever meanings you associate with it.

When "the flag" refers to the Stars and Stripes, with stars representing all the states, and stripes representing the original thirteen colonies/states, it is easy to think of the "Union." And then of the wars America has fought. You see that flag, you remember the Revolution from which that flag was born. But we forget about what the Revolution was actually *about*. We perceive history via winning the Cold War, World War II, World War I, the Spanish-American War, the Civil War, and the Mexican War. We think of how many Americans "died for that flag." We are the people of the flag of Unity, the American flag of Union, the Stars and Stripes of which many songs, including our National Anthem, was written

But we are not people of secession, of revolution, of "free and independent States." We are not people of the Gadsden "Don't Tread on Me" Rattlesnake flag. Instead, we pledge allegience to the flag of "one Nation, indivisible."

Had the rattlesnake been our national symbol (instead of the predatory bald eagle), and "Don't tread on me" our national motto (instead of: out of many, one" and "In God we trust"), our understanding of who we are as a union and as a nation would have taken us down a different path. As it is, the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which threw the Articles of Conferation into the garbage can, was the first in a series of steps that have virtually repudiated the Declaration of Independence by asserting that, indeed, there needs to be a central government. That defeating the British left a void that needed to be filled. With their illegal acquisitions, wars of conquest, forcibly keeping the union together, and direct assaults on individual liberty and property, Americans proved willing to do to themselves what they wouldn't let their British kinsmen do.

It is hard to imagine this abandonment of liberty, had we not abandoned the Gadsden flag. Symbols and words have power; no one would want to "pledge allegience" to a flag featuring the unpleasant sight of a rattlesnake. But the Gadsden flag is a constant reminder of why the Revolution was fought. As it is, with each new intrusive and imperial act coming from Washington D.C., the United States is practically admitting that our Canadian neighbors were right all along.

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