Flags, stamps, and coins: Yale scholar traces markers of U.S. sovereignty

In a new book, historian Alvita Akiboh examines how national iconography has been used across U.S. territories.
Alvita Akiboh with Imperial Material book cover

Alvita Akiboh (Portrait by Dan Renzetti)

When the United States claimed sovereignty over a handful of overseas territories around the turn of the 20th century, object lessons in American patriotism followed straight away.

The American flag was immediately raised above schoolhouses and government buildings. Postage stamps and money were reprinted with images of American symbols and heroes. National iconography appeared nearly everywhere, part of a strategy to Americanize the people of the new U.S. colonies: Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Philippines, and Hawaii. (The first four remain U.S. territories; the Philippines became independent in 1946; Hawaii was admitted as a state in 1959.)

In her new book, “Imperial Material: National Symbols in the U.S. Colonial Empire” (The University of Chicago Press), Alvita Akiboh, an assistant professor in the Department of History in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, traces the ways in which flags, stamps, and money were used and disseminated in U.S. colonies, as well as how they have been received by indigenous inhabitants.

She suggests that the federal government historically downplayed its colonial empire within the continental U.S. and abroad, for various reasons, even as it maintained its sovereignty front and center within the colonies.

This book asks those from the continental United States who have ignored the existence of the empire to examine why they have been able to do so, while people in the colonies themselves are forced to grapple with it every day,” Akiboh writes.

Akiboh spoke to Yale News about flag-waving’s symbolic importance, the art of quiet resistance, and the mysteries of patriotism.

In your acknowledgements, you say this project began when you saw a Philippine postage stamp with George Washington’s portrait on it. Where did you encounter it and why did it intrigue you so?

Alvita Akiboh: I encountered that stamp because I was doing some research on the extension of postal service to U.S. overseas colonies. I found it so striking because one common narrative in the continental United States was that the U.S. wanted to downplay the existence of a formal colonial empire. Even its critics would say the United States has been a very powerful empire, but not in the way that you might think. The United States has all these other ways of meddling with the sovereignty of other countries that fall short of claiming them as formal colonies.

But when you look at a postage stamp that says, “United States of America, Philippine Islands” in the legend and then has George Washington’s portrait, you think, well, this is an object that makes the existence of the Philippines as a formal U.S. colony obvious. So that got me thinking differently about these narratives that the U.S. government didn’t like to acknowledge the existence of these colonies. That might be what things looked like in the continental United States, but perhaps things look different in the colonies.

Whenever the U.S. acquired a new territory, one of the first things that the government, as well as a private veterans’ group, would do was make sure that the American flag was flown all over the place. Why was that such a priority?

Akiboh: One of the things I grappled with in my research was that, you know, you don’t expect it to be such a priority. But in the places where the military were the first ones on the scene, the first thing they do is plant the flag. And when it’s civilians, it’s the same thing. It’s a symbol of U.S. sovereignty.

Then you have, as you mentioned, this organization of Union veterans of the Civil War that had been trying to spread the flag and flag education throughout the continental United States with mixed results.  They were so enthusiastic about the prospect of spreading the flag to these new territories, they started a campaign to have a flag on every schoolhouse. They went to Puerto Rico with 600 flags, and they gave instructions to all the teachers to have students say the Pledge of Allegiance, on how to raise and lower the flag and how to fold it properly.

The American flag as a symbol of freedom and democracy didn’t necessarily resonate with people who had been colonized. Some remained loyal to their own national flag. Hawaiian women had a particularly creative way of expressing that loyalty.

Akiboh: Hawaii is an interesting case. You had U.S. citizens who were civilians, mostly businessmen, who staged a coup in 1893 to overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy. Then, from 1893 to 1898, it was unclear what was going on. There was a limbo period during which the coup plotters established a “republic” — basically an oligarchy. Eventually, the U.S. passed a resolution to annex the islands and there were protests where men waved the flags of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Hawaiian women responded by making flag quilts. The quilts usually had four Hawaiian flags around the border and the royal coat of arms in the center. This was a different kind of resistance. This was for the bearers of the quilts themselves. One of the women I quote in my book said, “I made this quilt and hung it above my four-poster bed so that all my children could be born under the flag of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and so that when I die, I will die under the flag.” Hawaiian quilting has a long and rich history. These quilts are not practical in the way that they are in New England. They are more about the symbolism, and a lot of thought gets put into those symbols.

Japan seized control of the Philippines and Guam at the start of World War II. And they immediately engaged in the same sorts of propaganda efforts that the U.S. had. Would you talk about that?

Akiboh: They were engaged in what some scholars have called “Japanization,” much like the Americanization efforts of U.S. imperialists. They had people reciting a pledge of allegiance to the Japanese flag. There were flag-raising ceremonies every morning, and teaching children in school what the Japanese flag means. And in the same way that U.S. imperialists would say living under the U.S. flag meant that you are a part of a community of people, Japanese officials and teachers said, “You now live under the Japanese flag, which means you are part of the ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.’”

Possessing a U.S. flag was a crime punishable by death. Having U.S. money or stamps was also punished severely. They replaced the money with money that said, “The Japanese Government,” and that had their own symbols on it in English — they still acknowledged that they had to print things in the language that people in the Philippines know. And eventually they produced their own stamps and tried to combine Japanese and Filipino iconography. Just like the United States, they envisioned these as long-term occupations.

The U.S. reinvaded both Guam and the Philippines in 1944, and it was discovered that quite a few people secretly had U.S. flags or made their own versions of them, despite the risk of death. How do you explain that kind of allegiance to their previous colonizer?

Akiboh: In the first part of the book, you see that allegiance, loyalty, patriotism, whatever word you want to use, was always on shaky ground at best in all these places. The United States was a violent colonizing power. But the Japanese occupation was particularly brutal. So, it makes sense that people would reach back to symbols from a previous colonizer who, even if they were terrible in their own ways, perhaps in that moment seemed like the lesser of two evils.

But consider that people in Guam and the Philippines weren’t the only ones who clung to the U.S. flag and their patriotism while still being excluded from the U.S. polity. You had Black soldiers in the United States who were excluded in all kinds of ways still showing their patriotism, risking their lives. You had Japanese Americans who were put in internment camps by the U.S. government still speaking about loyalty and allegiance to the U.S. flag. I think placing these stories in the Philippines and Guam within that frame shows us something different. Over the previous 40 years, many of these people, though not all, had absorbed the message that, when you pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag, that means you’re also an American. You’re part of this community. And that meant something to them.

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Allison Bensinger: allison.bensinger@yale.edu,