Sept. 8, 2011
My friend, Dick Libby, is a vexillologist. He studies flags. Dick worked for years to correct the version of the Shaw flag that flies over the heads of thousands of schoolchildren and tourists in our old State House in Annapolis, Maryland. I call this handsome banner the Shaw-Libby flag, since Dick Libby spent more time getting it right than even the redoubtable Col. Shaw did.
As we await the presidents speech to Congress this week, its worth thinking of that Shaw-Libby flag again. As Dick points out, this flag was Americas first peacetime flag.
How so? It was flown in Annapolis when Congress met there in late 1783. It was the flag that Gen. George Washington saw when he came to this historic town to resign his commission. He wanted to make a great symbolic gesture by returning his power to the source of his authority: the representatives of a free and peaceful people.
Today, our presidents approval rating is sinking. The Washington Post reports that the Obama administration which began with such high hopes is finding it harder to sustain those hopes. Congress can take little comfort from the presidents failing numbers. Americans tell pollsters they like Congress even less.
Its worth considering what things were like in 1783. Gen. Washington had just had to face down an incipient mutiny in the Continental Armys winter headquarters in Newburg, New York. The officers and men of the army had gone without pay, without promised lands, for years. They were restive. Some of their number wanted to march on Congress and demand that body keep its commitments. At the point of a bayonet.
Gen. Washington had come into their discontented ranks uninvited. He moved dramatically to the front of the hall and addressed the grumbling officers. This time, he could see that his appeals for good order and discipline were not calming the troubled waters. Washington had never considered himself a powerful orator, like Patrick Henry, like John Adams.
So he fished in his pockets for a letter, a message from a sympathetic Member of Congress which he said would put the case better. Opening the letter, he found he could not read it. As the men shuffled their feet, His Excellency searched for his eyeglasses.
Most of his officers had never seen their Commanding General wear spectacles before.
Washington, noting their murmurings said simply: Gentlemen: You will excuse me, for I have grown not only gray, but nearly blind in the service of our country.
Those quiet words were more moving to these veterans of many battles than any great orators ringing declamation. Many of the men wept openly. They had been through those battles with him and had seen him risk his life again and again.
So now, with peace assured, Gen. Washington rode into Annapolis to return his power to the source of that powerthe elected representatives of the sovereign American people. Then, as today, the U.S. economy was grinding to a halt. Then, as now, the republic was drowning in an ocean of debt. Then, as now, many people held Congress in contempt.
You mustnt give up power, your Excellency, some of his young aides pleaded. You must seize authority for the sake of our country. Washington firmly rejected this course.
I cannot act, he said sternly, the People must act.
But, sir, they protested, the People do not understand how close to collapse we are.
Unmoved, Washington answered: The People must feel an evil before they can see it.
Just in time, We the People acted. We fashioned a free republic through what young Alexander Hamilton called a miracle of reflection and choice. In time, too, we ratified a new Constitution and elected George Washington our first president.
Americans today arefeeling the evil. We feel the pain in the long lines unemployed. We pray for them, even as we are concerned we may be next in line. We feel the anguish of small business owners trapped in red tape who cannot freely hire new workers or offer new goods and services.
With all that bedevils us, all that threatens to disunite us, its important to reflect that we have come through hard, hard times before.
Today, there are journos who want to distract Americans by finding theos (theocrats) under every bed. They feel that if they can just frighten Americans with the theocrat scare, their side yet cling to power.
These journos might have been even more shocked had they read Gen. Washingtons orders to his army at the outset of the Revolution. With the British bearing down on them on Long Island in 1776, His Excellency wrote:
The fate of millions yet unborn will depend, under God, on the conduct of this army.
What? Talking about millions yet unborn? Talking about the army being under God?
How could we ever let such a theocrat lead us from that point of danger to that solemn ride under Americas first peacetime flag, the Shaw-Libby flag?
We did. By Gods grace we did. Let us pray we will yet be able to seek Gods aid in passing through our own distracted times. I thought of this when I flew the Shaw-Libby flag at my Annapolis home this week.