Burton on the Bay:
Rally 'Round the Flag
Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!
-Philip Nolan in The Man Without A Country, by Edward Everett Hale, 1863
It wasn't a true story, this tale of a young army officer who shouted those words in court. Nor was it based on any real incident.
But so clever with the pen was Hale - the grandson of Nathan Hale - in his account filling only 42 pages of the slender volume in my library that many who have read it consider the narration as fact. The Man Without a Country was published during the Civil War when a shot in the arm of patriotism was sorely needed, as it is today.
It was revived in 1917 by Little, Brown and Company, which at the end of a lengthy publisher's note summed it up: "Patriotism, love of country - that is what above all things we must have today; and never was a book written as certain as The Man Without a Country to bring to the surface the love of country that exists, deep down, in all our hearts."
Later the saga of Lt. Philip Nolan was the topic of a movie, which I didn't see - in the Great Depression, flicks were seldom seen by the hard-pressed Burtons and other struggling dirt farmers - but I recall hearing it on Cecil B. deMille's Lux Radio Theater in the mid '30s. The hour-long midweek Lux evening program was the only path to the latest movies at a time when the nation's unemployment rate was 25 percent.
We didn't get the visuals in that pre-TV era, but this episode was exceptionally vivid thanks to deMille and his writers.
For youngsters of the time - and presumably many adults, - that tale was stirring and patriotic. It's worthy of remembering this week as we celebrate the birth of our nation and as the U.S. Senate again debates whether to send to the states a Constitutional Amendment that would no longer endorse the burning of Old Glory as free speech protected by the First Amendment.
His Wish Came True
For the younger set who have never heard of this novella, the setting is in the first decade of the 1800s, when the villain Nolan faces court martial charged with being a follower of former veep Aaron Burr, who earlier killed Alexander Hamilton in the country's most heralded duel.
It was figured that the always ambitious Burr, with an army behind him, was trying to build his own empire within or without this fledgling nation. Nolan, who was politically and militarily seduced by Burr, was the only one convicted in the scandal.
The 'big flies' - the majors and the colonels - escaped punishment. Nolan was the scapegoat, presumably because he admitted he would have obeyed any command to "march any-wither had the order been signed by His Exc. A. Burr."
Upon being found guilty in proceedings ruled over primarily by former officers of the Revolution, he was asked if he wished to say anything to show he had always been faithful to his country.
"Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!" The court obliged his wish. From that day forth, he never again heard from another the name of his no-longer country, never saw its flag, never got news from home.
Navy ships took him around the world. Crews, guests and others were specifically instructed not to mention the United States nor allow him to see any news of same. Nor could its flag be displayed where he could see it. Until he died on the U.S. Corvette Levant on May 11, 1863, in the Mediterranean, those orders were carried out.
Even in death, his body could not be brought back to his former country, even though, repenting, he emphatically professed his love and tried many times via petitions to return. He was buried at sea.
Though aboard he was treated as a gentleman, his life was a dismal, anguished and lonely existence during which much of his time was spent studying maps in which the U.S. was deleted (as were any references to it in newspapers and periodicals), or his drawing of imagined maps of the expanding nation.
It is a touching story of a young man and the consequences of an emotional outburst. My friend, author Alan Doelp, describes it as a reminder that what one asks for, one could just get. It's like the short story "The Monkey's Paw."
Our Flag, Our Country
Such punishment today would be considered cruel and inhumane, in violation of the First Amendment if not the Constitution itself. But it is a story that should be made known to anyone who might consider burning our flag. I dare think in agreement would be some anti-war and other demonstrators who did so in the past.
It was 10 years ago last month, the U.S. Supreme Court by a 5 to 4 decision told us that the burning of our flag represents free speech under the First Amendment. It was 222 years ago last month that the Continental Congress adopted Betsy Ross' design for our standard. And it was only last month that the U.S. Senate, without a dissenting vote, decided to open its sessions with the pledge of allegiance to the American flag.
The House of Representatives decided to do the pledge a decade earlier, but then it was the House that last week once again came up with the necessary votes to pass the constitutional amendment to ban flag burning. Previously the Senate turned thumbs down.
Maybe, just maybe, some senators will see things differently now. Maybe by repeating the pledge as they face our flag, they will be influenced by what it really means. It is a tangible and enduring symbol of our country. In no small way, it is our country.
Ours is a nation of checks and balances, figuratively as well as literally. Presently, one can burn the flag to express outrage or to release inner turmoil. But doing so creates the very same emotions to the contrary within what would appear to be the majority of our citizenry.
As law-abiding citizens, we are not asked but commanded to contain our outrage, control our actions should we witness hotheads burning our flag - and usually behind a protective barricade of police most if not all of whom would prefer to walk away and let the crowd express its anger and indignation appropriately.
It's one thing to have a right, another to take advantage of it.
So this Fourth of July or any holiday commemorating our nation and our flag, heed not E. E. (or e.e. if you prefer) Cummings who in 1931 wrote in "I sing of Olaf, glad and big": "I will not kiss your f-ing flag."
Think instead of George Frederick Root, whose 1863 patriotic work, "The Battle Cry of Freedom," included "Yes, we'll rally 'round the flag, boys. we'll rally once again."
And if amidst all the holiday goings on you can find the time - no, make the time - repeat Francis Bellamy's 1892 piece that begins with "I pledge allegiance "
| Issue 26 |
Volume VII Number 26
July 1-7, 1999
New Bay Times
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