JEFFERSON AND FLAG BURNING
> Can you provide any Jefferson quotes concerning flag burnings or other > forms of so-called desecration that he described as actionable under > law? I have been told he wrote to Madison on the subject in the early > 1780's, but I haven't seen the quote. Also, anything else Jefferson, or > any of the other founders, might have said about flag protection. There are several references in Jefferson's writings to "the protection of the flag," but I am afraid these were not of the character that you seek. Some of the references are somewhat obscure, but Jefferson was referring to the protection afforded sailing vessels by the flag. In a letter to James Madison, written from Baltimore on Feb. 14, 1783, Jefferson was about to disembark for Europe as a minister negotiating peace with the British (he did not actually go on that occasion), and he was concerned about "what would be the extent of the protection of the flag to the papers I should carry?" In other words, his references were to the protection as an international symbol that the flag affords to vessels and to the persons traveling thereon. To David Humphreys, he wrote on March 22, 1793, saying "you will be pleased to be particularly attentive to preserve for our vessels all the rights of neutrality, and to endeavor that our flag be not usurped by others to procure to themselves the benefits of our neutrality." I have not been able to find a reference in Jefferson's writings to the burning or desecration of the flag as an expression of contempt for the country. Such a thing probably would never have crossed his mind. Either you were for America, liberty, freedom and independence, or you were on the other side. I have no doubt that he would have been aghast at the idea of someone claiming to be an American and then desecrating a symbol of the sovereign American people. Now, showing resistance and perhaps even contempt towards the *government* and government officials might be a different matter. As he wrote, "What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?" --Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, 1787. And it was in that context that he wrote "I hold it that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms are in the physical." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. The flag is a symbol of the people, of sovereign nationhood, not of the government. Anyone with contempt for this nation should feel obliged to pursue their fortunes under some other flag. Whether Jefferson would have favored some form of prosecution for people who nevertheless do that is a different matter. I think he would have been more inclined towards pity for them, with a hope that they might find a country to which they can give their wholehearted support, and that they would be honorable enough to remove themselves from the protection and benefits afforded by our flag.
> I have a quibble with your comment about what a flag represents. You > (not Jefferson) state "The flag is a symbol of the people, of sovereign > nationhood, not of the government." I believe this is incorrect. The > nation's flag represents the government, in the case of the United States > it represents the Constitution, which is the United States on paper. The flag existed BEFORE the Constitution and our present form of government. Remember Betsy Ross, etc.? > For > example did the flag of the third Reich in Germany represent the people or > the government? [note: the previous flag was replaced with the change of > government, similarly when the communists fell in Soviet Russia, the flag was > changed then as well] I did not say (I hope) that EVERY flag represents the people and sovereign natiohood. Both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were dictatorships, not governments of a sovereign people. In a free nation, the government is an appendage -- a tool, even, of a free people. In a dictatorship, every element of the society is under the control of the government, and a people freed from such tyranny would naturally wish to rid themselves of its symbols, forms, and institutions. > In this context I think if Jefferson would likely have advocated the > freedom of "desecration" of the national symbol just as any other symbol of > the government as fair game as a mode of criticism. You are free to form any opinion you wish, of course. I happen to think that Jefferson, while disfavoring any statutary laws forbidding flag desecration, would have taken it as an offense against the nation, not against the government. I think he would say of people with such an attitude of contempt, that they should feel free to emigrate to some other country which they might be able to support with their whole heart. > That said, I'm sure > Jefferson and the other founding fathers would have found that mode of > criticism abhorrent, especially after winning a hard revolutionary war. But was that a revolution of the government, or of the people? Indeed, there were people of that time who had that kind of feeling toward this country. They were called Tories, and most of them emigrated to England or to Canada. Although they entertained that kind of feeling, they at least had the integrity to withdraw from a society that they opposed. > Amidst Jefferson's other hypocrisies, such as owning slaves, he may well have > been against it, however, as you suggested. Jefferson inherited slaves, but opposed slavery his entire life. He did not think that merely turning them loose was a solution. It is easy to call him a hypocrite when judging him by today's social norms. That is called "presentism."
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