When humankind has enjoyed the blessings of liberty to any degree for any substantial length of time, it has been made possible by a nation-state that is properly defined and enforced, with its sovereignty respected. Of course, all nations are not established equally, and the United States is exceptional among them. This nation and its founding principles are worth celebrating. We do so today, by observing Flag Day.
On this day in 1777, amid a desperate war for American independence, the delegates to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia adopted the “Stars and Stripes” as the official flag of the emerging American nation. According to the adopted resolution: “White signifies Purity and Innocence; Red, Hardiness and Valor; and Blue, Vigilance, Perseverance and Justice.” These colors would be organized into 13 alternating red and white stripes and 13 white stars in a field of blue, symbolizing the unity of the 13 colonies and the American people’s struggle for their inalienable rights. The flag symbolized the cause of American liberty and those many thousands who have fought and died to defend it in every generation since.
The idea of human liberty and its political corollary—the principle of popular self-government, or national sovereignty—is not applicable only to Americans. Rather, it is a universal principle applicable to all people. Thomas Paine famously observed that “the cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.”
But this cause is contested today, both domestically and internationally. Domestically, the progressive administrative state continues to encroach on the republican government established by the Constitution. Abroad, tyrants and terrorists try to extinguish Lady Liberty’s flame. American sovereignty is also increasingly threatened by international institutions that have little respect for human rights, the rule of law, and self-government.
In our times, “nationalism” has become a dirty word. It is being drilled into university students’ heads that nation-states are done, finished—and good riddance! In their place, we are to enjoy global governance, borderless domains, and rootless masses without national allegiances. On the upside, that would mean no more war fostered by national myths and prejudices and carried out by statist war machines.
The European Union has been in the vanguard of attempts to “pool” or “share” sovereignty and has certainly moved beyond the nation-state model. The financial crises in Europe, however, have revealed the dangers of nebulous, unaccountable, and ineffective governing bodies associated with the loss of national sovereignty. On the American front, the Obama Administration has attempted to follow Europe’s political example and subject America’s constitutional order to an ever-increasing host of global governance institutions, including the International Criminal Court, the so-called Responsibility to Protect doctrine (R2P), and the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (commonly known as LOST). Our current national course is a reckless one.
The abandonment of the nation-state system in general and the American constitutional order in particular is unnecessary and at odds with the reason and experience of our experiment in constitutional self-government. The ideas of America’s founding are timeless. And yet the defense of freedom is never complete, but requires eternal vigilance—morally, legally, and materially. Not only must the cloth and colors of the flag endure, but the liberty it represents must not perish from the earth. Practically, this means maintaining our self-government at home and our national sovereignty abroad. In the words of the National Anthem:
O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
As you see the Stars and Stripes waving around the country this week, take a moment to ponder what the alternative to American constitutional government would be—not only for the United States, but for the direction of world affairs. On this symbolic day, not just Americans, but free people everywhere should pause to ponder the meaning of this red, white, and blue flag.