American Images: Star-Spangled Banner & a Flag on the Moon

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series American Images
Click this photo to see our entire Images of America gallery.

Click this photo to see our entire Images of America gallery.

A single image can evoke emotions, memories—and entire eras.

As part of the unfolding United America book launch, we’ve assembled a magnificent gallery of over 100 images of America. I love them all, but today I picked my favorite one—Buzz Aldrin and the U.S. flag on the moon. My reasons are biographical and scientific, as I will explain below.

Take a look at our new gallery: What’s your most meaningful image of America?

First, a few words about the gallery itself and how you can use it. Every image comes from Wikimedia Commons, which means that you can freely download and use the gallery images. We’ve used these images in small groups as an effective ice-breaker to begin discussions about our core values, based on my new book United America. However, the exercise doesn’t require anyone to have read the book beforehand. (We also provide free downloadable instructions for running this exercise.)

Why is this image my favorite?

I was 15 years old in 1969 when the first lunar landing took place. I was enthralled. I read everything I could find about the astronauts and the mission. Neil Armstrong took this iconic image. It symbolized so many positive American attributes and was of historic significance for all humankind. Years later, I met Michael Collins—the command module pilot—and I thought I had met a rock star.

This image is also my favorite because it represents the core value of symbolic patriotism—an emotional attachment to country evoked by such national symbols as Old Glory and the national anthem.


TONIGHT, Monday February 17 at 8 PM Eastern time, you can tune into the musical performance of Poets and Patriots: A Tuneful History of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Organized by University of Michigan music historian Mark Clague, this performance presents “a musical history of the U.S. national anthem to celebrate the release of a U-M funded recording project that tells the story of an English tune becoming America’s anthem.” The event is part of the elaborate celebration of the 200th anniversary of Francis Scott Key’s writing of what became our national anthem. (The performance tonight is open to the public and will be live-streamed.)

What did The Star-Spangled Banner sound like in 1814? Quite different from the tune we know today!

You can hear the 1814 rendition at the performance tonight and on YouTube right now. The 2-CD set includes the 1814 rendition, the English drinking song on which it was based, and 35 others tunes from early American history. (To learn more and to access a wealth of resources, visit

Does seeing the American flag flying or hearing the national anthem make you feel good?

What are your reactions to the image I selected today?

What is your favorite image of America?

American Images: Climbing into the Promised Land

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series American Images

Climbing into America at Ellis Island by Lewis HinesAlmost all Americans trace their lineages to places outside the country. Millions of those lineages run through Ellis Island, the main portal for entry from 1892 to 1954. So many America stories involve this portal that my second choice of Images of America is this iconic photograph of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in 1905.

Does your story involve Ellis Island?

This image is called “Climbing into the Promised Land” (sometimes, “Climbing into America”). It shows immigrants in heavy coats, lugging suitcases and baskets, paperwork in hand. The phrase “climbing up” contains the symbolism of America as the city on a hill, the land of opportunity, the promise of a better life for oneself and one’s family. One reason I am fond of this image is that it was taken right around the same time that my maternal grandfather came through Ellis Island, having spent his infancy in an English poorhouse.

This image was taken by Lewis Hine. Trained as a sociologist, he was one of the first to use the camera as a documentary device. His photography played an important role in social reform. Notably, his images of children in the workplace led to changes in child labor laws.

This week, we are looking at our new gallery containing over 100 American Images. This is a free resource for your personal reflection and for use as an ice breaker in small-group discussion. Please, peruse the gallery and tell us about your favorite images!

Does your family story involve Ellis Island?

What’s your reaction to this image?

What’s your favorite Image of America?

American Images: Annual Stand Down for Homeless Veterans

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series American Images

Military and civilian volunteers and homeless vets at a Stand DownNot all Images of America evoke positive emotions like gratitude, pride, wonder, or joy. Some images tell us about our shortcomings. The image I picked today from our gallery is one of them: a photograph of homeless veterans, military volunteers, and civilian volunteers saluting the American flag at a Stand Down for Homeless Veterans.

What feelings does it stir in you?

This image was suggested to me by a participant at a talk I gave this week about my new book, United America. I had an occasion to sit with him and have him review our gallery images. A few of the images spoke to him, but it was this photograph that he kept coming back to. I asked him why.

“No one realizes how much the military has done to protect our freedom, and how much the veterans have suffered,” he said. “It’s like it’s no big deal. Our government has not really taken care of our veterans all that well.” He related a story of a decorated colonel who had served with distinction in Afghanistan but couldn’t get a job when he came home. The veteran now lives out of his car, he told me.

Stand Downs, like the one pictured here, are attempts by the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide services to homeless veterans. As described by the VA, a Stand Down is normally a three-day event that provides food, shelter, clothing, health screenings, VA and Social Security benefits counseling, and referrals to a variety of other necessary services, such as housing, employment and substance abuse treatment. Stand Downs are collaborative events, coordinated between local VAs, other government agencies, and community agencies who serve the homeless.

An estimated 57,849 veterans were homeless on a single night in January 2013, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That figure is down from 76,329 on a single night in 2010. This downward trend in a positive development but we still have a long way to go. In my new book, I call veterans our “newest minority” because they are a systematically disadvantaged group.

When you look at this picture, what do you feel?

Have you participated in a Stand Down?

Why don’t we do more for our veterans?

Images of America: Mark Twain, Critical Patriot

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series American Images

Mark_Twain_by_AF_BradleyOur reactions to Images of America show us what we hold in common as Americans.

One thing we have in common is American literature. And no figure did as much to create a truly American literature as Mark Twain, writer, humorist, lecturer, and activist. So my pick today of a favorite image is a 1907 photo of Mark Twain. It’s one of the 100+ images in our gallery. But I selected Mark Twain more for his role as an ardent critic of American foreign policy than his role in literature. Would you consider him a patriot?

Critical patriotism is one of the 10 core values I write about in United America. A critical patriot is someone who criticizes U.S. policies out of love of country and the desire to have it live up to its high ideals. Critical patriotism can be thought of as tough love. It’s the opposite of blind-love patriotism–the my-country-right-or-wrong variety of patriotism. While many subscribe to this form of patriotism, it doesn’t qualify as a core value.

At first, Twain supported American expansionist policies, such as the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands and the Philippines. As he put it in an 1900 edition of the New York Herald, “I wanted the American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific … Why not spread its wings over the Philippines, I asked myself? … I said to myself, Here are a people who have suffered for three centuries. We can make them as free as ourselves, give them a government and country of their own, put a miniature of the American Constitution afloat in the Pacific, start a brand new republic to take its place among the free nations of the world. It seemed to me a great task to which we had addressed ourselves.”

But, he said, he learned that the real purpose was “to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem…. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.” For the rest of his life he was an anti-imperialist and outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policies and the expansionist policies of other nations–to the point that some considered him to be unpatriotic.

Does a true patriot criticize government policies?

Do you believe “my country, right or wrong”?

If you criticize U.S. policies, do you do so out of love of country?

Images of America: Lincoln Memorial

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series American Images

Lincoln Memorial with InscriptionMy wife and I spent an anniversary in Washington, D.C., visiting many famous memorials and monuments. For me, none stood out as much as the Lincoln Memorial. At other memorials, visitors walked through the exhibits, pausing to gaze, read inscriptions and reflect–but then hurrying to the next place. But at the Lincoln Memorial, people lingered, often sitting and conversing on the steps. Many seemed reluctant to leave.

Have you visited the Lincoln Memorial? What does it mean to you?

This week, I’ve perused our gallery of 100+ American Images, selecting five of my favorites and describing what each means to me. We began with the image of Buzz Aldrin and the American flag on the moon, and then considered the image of immigrants at Ellis Island “climbing into the Promised Land,” a Stand Down for homeless veterans, and Mark Twain as a critical patriot.

We conclude today with the Great Emancipator.

The Lincoln Memorial is filled with symbolism. It includes the text of the Gettysburg Address and the 16th president’s Second Inaugural Address. Legend has it that Lincoln’s fingers make the letters A and L in American Sign Language, a legend that could be true because the sculptor, Daniel Chester French, had a son who was deaf.

There are many reasons why people might linger at this memorial. It could be its location, the magnificent view from its steps, or its association with other historic events. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from these steps in1963.

His preservation of the union is the most important reason, in my opinion. Lincoln faced the greatest threat the nation has ever seen and, as it says in the epitaph, he “saved the union.”

Our so-called culture war today pales in comparison. It’s not a hot war. It’s not a shooting war. If we could preserve the union when faced with a bloody civil war, how could we not find a way to rise above our polarized politics today?

What does Lincoln mean to you?

If you’ve visited the Lincoln Memorial, what did it stir in you?

Which of the five images we’ve viewed this week your favorite?

NOTE: Be sure to read Duncan Newcomer’s essay on Lincoln and the 10 Core Values, as well as other Lincoln resources we offer. And, visit our inspiring gallery of American Images, along with instructions on how to use these images to have a civil dialogue about American values.