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After reviewing some arguments for and against flag burning I became curious as to whether or not there were documented cases of the U.S. Founding Fathers (or politically influential people of the time) burning flags of other nations in protest or dissent e.g. the British flag.

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I'd be surprised if the thought ever occurred to them. The symbolic impact of a flag is a concept rooted in nationalism, which was still in its infancy. The earliest accounts of flag burning I can find in the United States are during the Civil War. –  Comintern Jun 29 at 17:23
Sorry, but a flag of a regiment or other military unit was very important thing for the regiment far before nationalism. So, a flag could be destroyed because of some deeds of a unit. It WOULD be taken as a punishment. And that flag was a state flag of the appropriate state. But of course, it was not a NATION flag, for there were no nations. –  Gangnus Jun 30 at 16:09
Flag burning is more a modern phenomena typical of the youth rebellion in the 1960s. In colonial times, there was no formal notion of "flag burning", although certainly protests involving indignities did occur. A standard way to express disapproval in those days was to scoop some shit off the ground (which was plentiful) and throw it at the persons detested. This was considered just as insulting as dirtying a flag. Flags were a lot more expensive 200 years ago, so there were much cheaper ways to protest. –  Tyler Durden Jun 30 at 17:02
@TylerDurden - Quite. In fact, burning the flag is traditionally one of the two acceptable methods of disposing of a flag (the other being burial). –  T.E.D. Nov 22 at 15:48
@T.E.D. - Interesting, I didn't know that about burning. So when southerners burned or buried the flag during the Civil War, was that a more respectful way to signal secession than other options (like dragging it through the mud or tearing it to pieces)? Or were they innovators who were the first to make burying and burning flags (symbolically) inflammatory? –  two sheds Nov 22 at 16:47

1 Answer 1

up vote 5 down vote accepted

There are isolated instances of flag desecration in America's colonial and revolutionary past, but the perpetrators were not especially influential. From Robert Goldstein's "The Great 1989-1990 Flag Flap: An Historical, Political, and Legal Analysis", published in the University of Miami's Law Review, p. 37:

Although a scattering of flag desecration incidents speckled American history prior to the twentieth century, none of them aroused any form of institutionalized legal response until shortly before 1900. Perhaps the earliest case occurred in 1634, when Captain John Endicott, the commander of a military company in Massachusetts Bay Colony, defaced part of the red cross of the King's colors in protest of its alleged connection with the papacy. In a 1783 incident during the American Revolutionary War, a British flag was torn to pieces in New York.

This occurred shortly after the British left New York. There are isolated instances of Confederates burning and burying the flag during the Civil War, and one man in Union-occupied New Orleans was executed after conviction of treason for stealing and then dragging an American flag through the mud.

The author suggests that flag desecration may have been relatively rare because veneration of the flag was much milder than it would be in the 20th century. For example, there's a photograph of Lincoln and McClellan eating at a table covered with a flag. Almost all flag-related laws were passed in the 20th century. The Star Spangled Banner was declared the national anthem by Congress in 1931; Stars and Stripes Forever was only declared the national march in 1987; Flag Day was established in 1949; Flag Week in 1966; and the government endorsed the Pledge of Allegiance and codified flag etiquette for the first time in 1942. State laws prohibiting flag desecration date back to 1897, but the federal government passed its first flag desecration law in 1968 (36-37).

Interestingly, Mittlebeeler* suggests that the first anti-desecration laws were due to "popular outcries against the use of the flag for advertising" (888) and its common use as clothing for black face minstrels, prize fighters, and circus clowns. Profanation and cheapening were the original threats to the flag, not physical destruction.

  • Emmet V. Mittlebeeler. "Flag Profanation and the Law." Kentucky Law Journal 885(60), 1971-1972.
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