NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF
V E X I L L O L O G Y
FRINGE ON THE FLAG?
For many years rumors have been spread through the United States concerning the origin and meaning of the gold fringe which frequently decorates the Stars and Stripes. It has been claimed that such fringe is without proper authorization; that it is symbolic of the end of the gold standard as the basis for United States currency; or that it indicates the substitution of admiralty courts and martial law for common law courts and procedures, as part of a conspiracy supposedly instigated by Communists, Jews, Masons, liberals, feminists, homosexuals, or other "un-American" groups. Many of these claims are spread by radio talk programs, cassette tapes, lectures and other non-written form. The following can be stated with certainty:
- Available evidence seems to suggest that the claims made about fringe on the United States flag are intended to promote the political ends -- including elimination of income taxes, re-establishment of the gold standard, and denial of legal rights to women, non-Christians, and non-Caucasians -- of those who spread those rumors.
- From the standpoint of history and law, fringe on a flag has no symbolism. While each individual is free to interpret the meaning of fringe, it has no inherent or established universal symbolism.
- While fringe is frequently used on military flags and in formal settings (parades, public meetings, offices of government officials, courts, inaugurations, dedication ceremonies, etc.), it is also widely used in the private sector. Examples of private usage of fringe on flags in the United States extend back for 200 years.
- Fringe is and always has been a purely decorative addition -- an optional enhancement of the beauty of a flag, added on a discretionary basis when the flag is purchased. In the private sector and for non-military government uses, use of fringe is like the choice of polyester or nylon over cotton or wool for the flag itself -- simply a matter of enhancing the appearance of the flag.
- Title Four of the United States Code which defines the Stars and Stripes neither prescribes nor proscribes the use of cords and tassels, heading, sleeve, fringe, and other accessories to the flag. It is universally recognized that the symbolic aspect of the flag is inherent in its colors and symbols, not in the physical characteristics of the flag or the things (like fringe) added to it when it is displayed.
- Admiralty courts deal only with maritime contracts, collisions at sea, and similar naval questions, not with normal civil and criminal cases. There is no symbol in the United States which indicates an admiralty court. While international treaties require that ships display the national flag, maritime flags never have fringe.
- Martial law is not mentioned in the United States constitution nor has martial law ever been proclaimed in the United States. The use or non-use of fringe on a United States flag in a court has nothing to do with the jurisdiction of the court or with martial law.
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