June 14 is the day the United States celebrates Flag Day. While it may not be as widely celebrated as other American holidays, it is one of the oldest. It was resolved by the Second Continental Congress in 1777, even before the conclusion of the American War of Independence, the Revolutionary War.
In 1885, BJ Cigrand, a Wisconsin schoolteacher, initiated a “Flag Birthday” for his students on June 14. His continual promotion of this “Flag Day” inspired New York kindergarten teacher George Balch in 1889 to have similar observances for his students, and the State Board of Education for the state followed suit. The Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia had a Flag Day in 1891, and the following year so did the New York Society of the Sons of the Revolution. Other state organizations in New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois followed suit.
A hundred years ago, in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson set June 14 as the official Flag Day by proclamation, and Congress established it in 1949. The “Stars and Stripes” represents the symbol of America and was originally created by Betsy Ross in Philadelphia. The flag of red, white, and blue became a popular rallying point throughout various points in American history. In 1894 300,000 children participated in Flag Day celebrations in several parks in Chicago.
The flag is often featured in other holidays: Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Independence Day. It appears on military and police uniforms and is the symbol of American troops who have fought in wars overseas. But it goes back to the beginning of America’s national history.
Pivotal Commentary on the New Nation
One of my favorite stories of that beginning was about Benjamin Franklin, one of the Committee of Five who worked on the Declaration of Independence (1776) as well as a contributor to the American Constitution (1787). As he left Independence Hall in Philadelphia at the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 he was asked this question by a lady:
“Well Doctor, what have we got — a republic or a monarchy?”
Franklin replied without hesitation:
“A republic, Madam — if you can keep it.”
What’s remarkable about this story is not just the on-the-spot wit and wisdom of Benjamin Franklin, but the circumstance of the question and the political savvy of the lady who asked it: Elizabeth Willing Powel.
Written in his journal by one of the delegates to the convention, Dr. James McHenry of Maryland, he called Mrs. Powel, a pivotal woman of the founding era, “a lady remarkable for her understanding and wit.”
A prominent Philadelphia-based socialite, patriot, and “salonist” during the American Revolution, Eliza Powel was the daughter, niece, granddaughter, sister, and wife of Philadelphia mayors and was surprisingly well connected politically. The dinner parties and social gatherings of her French-style political salon — which Franklin experienced in Paris — were a gathering place for the essential movers and shakers along with their wives.
She was a confidant of George Washington and convinced him to run for a second term when he intended instead to step down. She knew John Adams, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Elizabeth Hamilton, the wife of Alexander Hamilton. Though married to Samuel Powel, one of the wealthiest merchants in Philadelphia, it was her “salon” attended by high-profile politicians and intellectuals, where she opined on matters of state herself, not her husband.
For over a century, the story didn’t get much press play after a few initial newspaper publishings between 1787 and 1803, not even during the American Civil War until McHenry’s journal was published publicly in 1906. It was subsequently used, ironically, in a publication against the electing Franklin D. Roosevelt for a third term.
But that’s not the end of the story. James McHenry, writing during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson some 16 years after the initial publication in 1787 expanded on the story:
Franklin: “A republic, Madam — if you can keep it”
Mrs. Powel: “And why not keep it?”
Franklin: “Because the people, on tasting the dish, are always disposed to eat more of it than does them good.”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian