Burning the Flag: A Brief History of a Controversial Issue

Christopher Newport University

Jonathan W. White is associate professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University.  He is the author or editor of twelve books, including Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War, and Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln, which was a finalist for both the Lincoln Prize and Jefferson Davis Prize, and the winner of the Abraham Lincoln Institute’s book prize. He serves as vice chair of The Lincoln Forum, and on the boards of the Abraham Lincoln Association, the Abraham Lincoln Institute, and the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia, as well as the Ford’s Theatre Advisory Council.



This class will discuss flag desecration in U.S. history, including instances when Americans burned, trampled, spit on, and tore the national symbol. Drawing on little-known cases from the Civil War, World War 1, and Vietnam, and–in the wake of the presidential election of 2016–Dr. Jonathan W. White will elucidate some of the reasons that Americans showed disrespect for the American flag, and how the state and federal governments responded. While many Americans are familiar with the landmark Supreme Court case Texas v. Johnson (1989), which held that flag burning was a constitutionally protected free speech right, the history of flag burning is far more interesting than that one famous case.



Recommended Reading:

Flag Burning and Free Speech: The Case of Texas v. Johnson, by Robert Goldstein

Desecrating the American Flag: Key Documents of the Controversy from the Civil War to 1995, by Robert Goldstein

Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln, by Jonathan W. White



Discussion Questions:

1. Should flag burning be considered protected symbolic speech or is it an act that can be punished?

2. Why and how have views about the American flag changed over time?

3. Is the flag a unique and special symbol deserving of special protection?




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