Hayward: Antique book gives new understanding of the American Flag

Lauren Hayward

I have recently become addicted to antiquing.

As something that I had always considered the realm of single 60-year-old men who refuse to buy pants big enough and middle-aged engaged couples, this is a new and foreign shopping experience that, dare I say, excites me almost as much as next-day shipping on online shopping.

Here in Ames there is a veritable plethora of antique wares, and among these I found a book that was like nothing I had seen before.

“King’s Handbook of the United States” by M. F. Sweetser, first edition, published in 1891. It has a profile on each state and a history of the United States.

I greedily devoured this book, starting off with the Iowa section, of course, and then flipped back to find out some historical facts about America. It genuinely amazed me to read a book that was created before my country had even won federation from the United Kingdom.

Opening its worn cover revealed illustrations of a typical landscape in the north and south of this vast land, while the back cover and last page show typical scenes of the east and west. The title page is chock-full of American symbolism: an eagle, the flag, Capitol Hill and a picture of George Washington holding a copy of the book. But the greatest, most inspiring part of this book was the description of the American ensign.

“The colors are red, signifying Divine love, valor and war; white, whose language is hope and truth, purity and peace; and blue, the color of loyalty, sincerity and justice.”

This description immediately changed my perception of the flag, as it morphed into something that represented not merely the United States, but an innate American ideology.

Further down the page was a quote from Henry Ward Beecher, a man of whom I had not previously heard. He was a Republican and a Protestant preacher who was an advocate of Darwin’s theory of evolution, abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage. He allegedly had an affair with his best friend’s wife and is said to have been handsomely muscular and long haired. He was a playboy liberal in his day, achieving celebrity and notoriety for his very separate public and private lives.

He and his writings are quintessentially American. Rousing and inspirational, he did have his flaws, but he was adored by the public at large and people flocked to see him speak.

He wrote, as quoted in this aged collection of American facts and patriotism, a description of the flag that has, without doubt, changed all that I knew of America and what it stands for.

“So on the American flag, stars and beams of many-colored light shine out together. And where this flag comes, and men behold it, they see in its sacred emblazonry no ramping lions and no fierce eagle, no embattled castles or insignia of imperial authority; they see in it symbols of light. It is the banner of dawn. It means liberty … Our flag carries American ideas, American history and American feelings … Every color means liberty; not lawlessness, not license; but organized institutional liberty — liberty through law, and laws for liberty!”

The American flag is, with my new understanding of its meaning, more beautiful than it had ever been before. Moving gracefully through skies across the land of the free and the home of the brave, the American flag encapsulates everything that is America.

It is contradictory, idealistic and laden with historical meanings; it is able to unite all Americans, inspiring young and old, but above all else it is a symbol of liberty for all.

That is America; that is the American flag.