Every student of the US flag knows that it was officially adopted on 14 June 1777 when the Second Continental Congress passed what is now known as the First Flag Act:
Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.
Annually commemorating 14 June as Flag Day slowly took root in the US over the course of the 19th century, beginning with an observance in Hartford, Connecticut in 1861 “praying for the success of the Federal arms and the preservation of the Union.” It wasn’t until 1916 that it was recognized at the national level by proclamation of President Woodrow Wilson. In his proclamation Wilson talks about divisiveness in the American public:
Many circumstances have recently conspired to turn our thoughts to a critical examination of the conditions of our national life, of the influences which have seemed to threaten to divide us in interest and sympathy, of forces within and forces without that seemed likely to draw us away from the happy traditions of united purpose and action of which we have been so proud.
Flag Day, he says, is meant to quiet this discord and reestablish unity:
Let us on that day rededicate ourselves to the nation, “one and inseparable” from which every thought that is not worthy of our fathers’ first vows in independence, liberty, and right shall be excluded and in which we shall stand with united hearts, for an America which no man can corrupt, no influence draw away from its ideals, no force divide against itself, –a nation signally distinguished among all the nations of mankind for its clear, individual conception alike of its duties and its privileges, its obligations and its rights.
Still, it wasn’t until the advent of the Cold War that Congress acted in 1949 to establish 14 June as Flag Day, in 36 U.S. Code § 110. Where Wilson’s proclamation was full of lofty rhetoric and concern over disunity, the Flag Day resolution itself is terse.
Section (a), Designation, states: “June 14 is Flag Day.” Section (b), Proclamation, does not itself proclaim anything, but instead asks the President to proclaim Flag Day each year. The President is free to say anything he or she wants in these proclamations, so long the text (1) calls on “United States Government officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on Flag Day”; and (2) urges “the people of the United States to observe Flag Day as the anniversary of the adoption on June 14, 1777, by the Continental Congress of the Stars and Stripes as the official flag of the United States.”
Unlike other sections of the Patriotic and National Observances chapter of U.S. Code, section 110 doesn’t include a “Purpose” section or say anything about why observing this anniversary is important, leaving it up to each President, each year, to spin this as they see fit. In this year’s proclamation, the last in his presidency, President Obama uses a range of verbs to describe what the flag does: inspiring, representing, reminding, embodying, sustaining, persisting, and communicating. Like Wilson, he stresses unity:
Our flag persists as a powerful representation of freedom and opportunity. Waving high above capitol buildings and courthouses, military bases and embassies across the globe, and on the distant surface of the moon, it calls on each of us to remember our obligations to the Republic for which it stands and to carry forward the unwavering optimism that defines us. America endures because of the courage of servicemen and women who serve under this standard, and our veterans are forever draped in the red, white, and blue when they are laid to rest. Wherever the flag lies or flies, its message is clear: We rise and fall together, as one Nation and one people.
Flag Day was apparently enough until 1966 when Congress passed a joint resolution:
That the President is authorized and requested to issue annually a proclamation designating the week in which June 14 occurs as National Flag Week, and calling upon all citizens to display the flag of the United States on those days.
President Johnson and his successors complied, adding additional Congressionally requested verbiage to what are now Flag Day and National Flag Week proclamations. In 1975 Congress apparently decided that one week wasn’t enough, and passed a joint resolution defining a three-week “Honor America Days” period:
That Congress declares the twenty-one days from Flag Day through Independence Day as a period to honor America, and further declares that there be public gatherings and activities at which the people of the United States can celebrate and honor their country in an appropriate manner.
Though Honor America Days does not request a presidential proclamation, and only implicitly involves the national flag, Flag Day and National Flag Week proclamations since 1977 (the bicentennial of the First Flag Act) have called upon Americans to observe this period.
Neither Flag Day, Flag Week, nor Honor America Days get much attention in contemporary America. Using Google News search results as a metric, these terms yield 82,000, 477, and 84 hits, respectively. By comparison Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Fathers Day yield 648,000, 32.6 million, and 1.1 million hits.