This Day in History: The origins of the Flag Code
On or around this day in 1942, the United States Congress considers amendments to the United States Flag Code. Did you know that the first Flag Code wasn’t written until 1923? Or do you know why it provides for us to stand and put our hands over our hearts? Or how the tradition of flying the flag at half-staff got started in the first place?
Believe it or not, the latter custom can be traced back to the 1600s.
The first recorded instance of a flag being flown at half-mast occurred in 1612. The British ship Heart’s Ease was looking for the Northwest Passage when her captain was killed by Eskimos. The crew responded by lowering the flag to half-mast, which was the first sight that Londoners saw when the ship returned to port.
No one is exactly sure what made the crew lower the flag to half-mast, but there are a few possible explanations.
One theory stems from a sailor’s love of order and discipline on a ship. Any departure from that orderliness indicates that things are awry. “The half-masting of colors is in reality a survival of the days when a slovenly appearance characterized mourning,” Lt. Commander Leland P. Lovette wrote in the 1930s. “Even in the British Merchant Service today there are recent cases of trailing rope ends, slacking off of rigging, and scandalizing yards as a sign of mourning.”
A second theory is that lowering the flag to half-mast would make room for an invisible black flag of mourning above it.
Either way, the custom spread, and it is commonly used by countries all over the world today.
The tradition of standing and placing our hands on our hearts also has surprising origins—and it was this very tradition that Congress would have been considering on this day so long ago. But even those deliberations had been a long time coming.
As early as the Civil War years, some Army veterans were working to protect the flag from certain types of commercial advertisements and other signs of disrespect. They’d put their lives on the line for that flag! They couldn’t stomach its desecration now. Despite their work, the flag-protection movement didn’t really gain steam until after World War I. Finally, on Flag Day in 1923, the American Legion and more than 60 other patriotic, fraternal, civic and military organizations met for the first National Flag Conference in Washington, D.C. Their purpose? Draft a code of flag etiquette. A second Flag Conference was held one year later. The Flag Code was finally made law in June 1942.
Early versions of the Flag Code contained a provision that might surprise modern Americans today: The pledge of allegiance was to “be rendered by standing with the right hand over the heart; extending the right hand, palm upward, toward the flag at the words 'to the flag' and holding this position until the end, when the hand drops to the side.”
Maybe you won’t be surprised to hear that this tradition was soon dropped. It looked too much like a Nazi salute! On December 22, 1942, FDR signed an amendment to the Flag Code simplifying the provision so that we now stand “with the right hand over the heart.”
Today, the Flag Code is codified in Title 4 of the United States Code. It’s a code of etiquette and respect, created because the “flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.” But it’s as code of etiquette only: There are no criminal sanctions for violating the Code’s provisions.
Obviously, there has been controversy lately regarding whether individuals “should face the flag and stand at attention with their right hand over the heart” whenever the national anthem is played. There’s a certain amount of irony in the protests, given the flag protection movement’s origins. “[The flag] served as a unifying symbol—especially after the end of the Civil War—for a relatively young nation made up predominately of immigrants,” one biographer of the flag concludes.
How will the controversy end? Perhaps the end of this history story is still in the future.
Joint Resolution to amend Public Law Numbered 623, approved June 22, 1942 (approved Dec. 22, 1942)
Leland P. Lovette, Naval Customs Traditions and Usage (United States Naval Institute; 1939) (3d edition)
Marc Leepson, Don’t Mess With the Stars and Stripes (N.Y. Times; Sept. 1, 2016)
Marc Leepson, Flag: An American Biography (2005)
Public Law 94-344 (approved July 7, 1976)
Robert Kastenbaum & Christopher M. Moreman, Death, Society, and Human Experience (12th ed. 2018)
The American Legion: Flag CodeThe Star-Spangled Banner: Flag Rules and Rituals (Smithsonian National Museum of American History)
John R. Luckey, The United States Flag: Federal Law Relating to Display and Associated Questions (CRS Report for Congress; April 14, 2008)