One Fourth of July, I was attending a minor league baseball game with friends. The evening was warm, the beer was cold, and the fireworks were spectacular. And then a stray rocket flew into the flag. The crowd turned angry and began shouting and jeering. One man nearby had tears in his eyes. As the Atlanta Braves famously discovered in a similar incident in 2014, setting the Stars and Stripes on fire with fireworks is not a good idea.

April 2018 marks the bicentennial of Congress’s formal adoption of the current “design” – 13 stripes representing the union’s original 13 states, and a changing number of stars representing the current states. That the number of stars changes while the number of stripes remains fixed allows the flag to be both dynamic and instantly recognisable. (The original design called for the number of stars and stripes both to equal the number of states, so the flag would now have fifty very narrow stripes!)

But even though the flag is two centuries old, its remarkable potency as a national symbol is in fact relatively recent.

Anyone who has travelled to the US will know how ubiquitous the flag is. It festoons houses and front yards, flies from cars, and hangs from bridges; school children practise raising and lowering it. Federal law mandates that it must be flown from all public buildings – and the laws regulating its display are extensive.

The United States Flag Code goes into immense detail. In 50 lengthy articles, it outlines everything from when, where and how the flag can be displayed to the methods for the correct disposal of old flags. And for many Americans, even this is not enough. For many years, Congress has attempted to pass laws outlawing its desecration, but these have run afoul of first amendment rights to freedom of speech. The US is not the only country to seek to outlaw the desecration of its flag, but these discussions have generated more heated debate than they ever would elsewhere.

Americans care so much about the Stars and Stripes because it plays a unique and supreme role in their culture. In the pledge of allegiance, Americans do not first pledge allegiance to the country, but “to the Flag of the United States of America”. The national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, celebrates not the nation, but the flag.

It was only at the turn of the 20th century that Americans began to view the flag as sacrosanct, and only then was the Flag Code itself drawn up. This was a period when a surge in mass immigration had many Americans worried that their national identity was under threat. With the shock of World War I, it became more pressing to create a symbol of national unity. Other nations have been able to build a sense of identity around ethnicity, religion, or culture – but for the US, that task was much more difficult.

An ethnically diverse country since its founding, the US also has no monarch to symbolise its nationhood, and the president can be as much a figure of division as national unity. The US’s internal and external borders are clearly artificial, not geographic. Even the term “America” is ambiguous and contested; talk to someone from Central or South America and they will tell you vehemently that they are Americans.

The Stars and Stripes can easily be associated with any number of ideas, feelings and events. It feels rooted in the very origins of the country and even has its own creation myth – the story of its birth at the hand of seamstress Betsy Ross, for which the historical evidence is at best thin.

The flag seems to be present in the imagery of almost every key event in American history, from the moon landings to firefighters raising the flag over the ruins of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Joe Rosenthal’s 1945 photograph of troops raising it on Iwo Jima remains one of the most easily recognisable and frequently reproduced images.

It is difficult to think of any other flag that’s so heavily invested in meaning. The Stars and Stripes expresses the spirit, history and identity of an entire nation. Indeed, the Flag Code states quite clearly that “the flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing”.

When the fireworks display went wrong, it is perhaps no wonder that those baseball fans reacted in much the same manner as if a gang of teenagers had started torturing some helpless animal.

This article was originally published on The Conversation 

Matthew Ward is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Dundee