Everybody knows that the Eagles and Flags together are the modern symbols of American patriotism.
Just Google “Eagle, Flag” and you’ll be dazzled by the sheer number of photoshopped eagles in front of waving flags, air-brushed eagles soaring over flag-colored clouds, ceramic eagles with flags in their talons; hybrid eagleflags of various sorts: Escher-like eagle flag conundrums, or eagles with flag feathers.
There are vigilant looking eagles, screaming eagles, and eagles that just look pissed-off.
Virtually every hour new images appear on the web. There are eagleflag sheets and eagleflag bedspreads; rocks painted with eagleflags, eagleflag flags with eagles and flags on them.
These products are invariably sold as emblems of patriotism, the premise being I suppose that if the eagle is a patriotic symbol and the flag is a patriotic symbol then putting both together makes you twice as patriotic. Sometimes you find eagles, flags, and the statue of liberty, or eagles, flags, and a historical looking document. Or eagles, flags, and fireworks, or military gear. Three times as patriotic.
When did the eagleflag become a patriotic symbol? I can’t think of other periods in American history when eagles and flags come together this way. The flag has always been a symbol: so has the eagle, but Americans liked to use Uncle Sam, or the goddess Columbia in flowing robes, or a symbolic personification of liberty or freedom.
The image on the left from 1861 is fairly typical: there are both eagles and flags, but the dominant image is the goddess of liberty, wearing her traditional phrygian cap. The cap has a long history in the US and has appeared on coins and posters and handbills: it’s also a symbol of the French republic. The eagles and the flags are secondary to the goddess, and the goddess recalls classical notions of liberty and virtue.
The song’s lyrics are quoted above the top eagle “The God of Battles smiled’ Justice triumphed: / The Stars & Stripes, Columbia’s Sacred Flag / Like Eagles pinions Fluttered to the breeze.” Pretty bellicose stuff, but she also has a lyre and an artists’ palette. It celebrates a varied nation with many talents. It’s symbolically crowded, but the symbols make sense
This envelope, printed to celebrate the Union cause during the Civil War, has many of the hallmarks of the modern eagleflag, but it still shows the phrygian cap 0f liberty:
This 1904 image from the cover of Puck might look familiar, but the caption reads “His 128th birthday–“Gee, but this is an awful stretch.” The cation undermines the military triumphalism of the eagle flag.
Thomas Nast, the great political cartoonist, drew the American eagle this way in 1882: skinny, with a top hat and striped pants. This eagle clearly owes a lot to traditional depictions of “Uncle Sam,” and in the original cartoon the Eagle is speaking to the “british lion,” who looks considerably more formidable.
American illustrators much more commonly depicted the United States as a goddess, or as Uncle Sam, who is almost always lanky, gangly, and slightly awkward: he’s sometimes stern, as in the famous poster saying “Uncle Sam wants YOU:” and he’s often dressed in the flag. But he rarely has an eagle and he’s often more cranky than formidable. The image below is a detail from an 1882 cartoon called “Uncle Sam’s Lodging House. In the cartoon Sam struggles with a belligerent irishman who keeps the other immigrant lodgers awake. Sam has the American flag pants, and behind him stands the goddess of liberty in period dress and, again, the phrygian cap.
Uncle Sam has always been a slightly comical figure and as far as I know, this reflects his origins in the stereotype of the Yankee peddlar, the fast talking, eccentric clever figure who filled American popular fiction. The name “uncle Sam” comes from the letters “U.S.,” the figure from Canadian Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s popular fictional character “Sam Slick” of slickville. Haliburton’s stories celebrated canny tricksters and likable folk con men. There were similar popular stories about like those about “Simon Suggs,” a huckster who insisted “it’s good to be shifty in a new country.” Mark Twain invented a similar character, Colonel Beriah Sellers, in his novel The Gilded Age. Sellers is a con man, but not because he’s evil: it’s because he’s endlessly, boundlessly enthusiastic and optimistic: a dreamer. Uncle Sam’s flag-derived clothes recalled bluster and hucksterism, optimism and possibility. Here are some pictures of the historical Uncle Sam. It’s hard to make him into a menacing figure.
In this 1876 image Liberty is marrying Uncle Sam with George Washington’s blessing. Liberty has her phrygian cap. Sam is more youthful but he still has the traditional carnival exuberance. Eagle-free.
It’s extremely interesting that Americans took as their symbol an elderly peddler in comically formal flag dress. It maybe reflects the nation’s origin as as a relatively weak power relying on something other than sheer force to survive; or it’s origins in rhetoric and persuasion and salesmanship: at the very least it suggests an ability to laugh at oneself now sadly vanished.
And it’s maybe equally interesting how American symbolism has evolved. The eagleflag of modern times is generally entirely humorless and entirely devoid of irony. It makes very little room for political depth or range. It’s pretty much symbolism which has lost its referent, which is why it appears in so many odd and varied forms. 1
And it’s maybe equally interesting how American symbolism has evolved. The flag eagle is generally entirely humorless and completely devoid of irony. It has little or no interpretive range or space. That the eagle and the flag so often merge reflects how both have detached from their original symbolic context. That kind of merger often indicates meaning being remade. But what is the meaning of an eagle with a flag photoshopped over its face? It’s a thoughtless, muddled form of patriotism.
- For example, I often want to fly a flag on holidays, partly to reclaim the flag from jingoism. But my wife, who grew up on Marine bases, says no. She grew up with the flag treated as a very serious symbol, with strict requirements: it has to be raised at dawn and taken down at dusk, unless illuminated. It has to be folded and stored properly. It’s not a trivial thing, something to be done thoughtlessly: it’s a symbol full of specific meaning and the meaning should be respected, or don’t fly it. ↩