This week, in response to the tragic shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, President Donald J. Trump issued a Presidential proclamation
ordering “that the flag of the United States
shall be flown at half-staff at the White House and upon all public buildings and grounds, at all military posts and naval stations, and on all naval vessels of the Federal Government in the District of Columbia and throughout the United States and its Territories and possessions until sunset, August 8, 2019.”
When our nation is in mourning, as well as under certain other circumstances, flags are typically lowered to half-staff (or half-mast, on nautical vessels). But how did this tradition come into practice?
According to Ethan Trex, the oldest commonly accepted reference to a half-mast flag dates back to 1612, when the captain of the British ship Heart's Ease died journeying to Canada. When the ship returned to London, it was flying its flag at half-mast to honor the departed captain.The captain, James Hall, was killed by an Inuit spear, and the crew lowered the ship's flag to half-mast. This may have partly been to signal to those who had gone inland that something had gone wrong, but sailor superstitions may also played a role. According to tradition, the ship's flag was put at half-mast to make room for the invisible flag of Death. In fact, when the ship returned to London, the ship's flag was still at half-mast, implying that the crew was still sailing under Death's flag.
Whatever the origins, the tradition became more widely embraced over time, particularly by sailors. One of the first accounts of this practice in American history dates back to 1799, when the Department of the Navy ordered its entire fleet of ships to lower their flags to half-mast upon the death of George Washington. The tradition continued, spreading from a maritime practice to a national one. The tradition remained informal until President Dwight Eisenhower issued Proclamation 3044, which legally standardized the custom in 1954 for the national flags of all federal buildings. United States Code Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 7 details the following rules regarding the treatment of the national flag at half-staff:
The flag, when flown at half-staff, should be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. The flag should be again raised to the peak before it is lowered for the day. On Memorial Day the flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon only, then raised to the top of the staff. By order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory. In the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff according to Presidential instructions or orders, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law. In the event of the death of a present or former official of the government of any State, territory, or possession of the United States, the death of a member of the Armed Forces from any State, territory, or possession who dies while serving on active duty, or the death of a first responder working in any State, territory, or possession who dies while serving in the line of duty, the Governor of that State, territory, or possession may proclaim that the National flag shall be flown at half-staff, and the same authority is provided to the Mayor of the District of Columbia with respect to present or former officials of the District of Columbia, members of the Armed Forces from the District of Columbia, and first responders working in the District of Columbia. When the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, or the Mayor of the District of Columbia, issues a proclamation under the preceding sentence that the National flag be flown at half-staff in that State, territory, or possession or in the District of Columbia because of the death of a member of the Armed Forces, the National flag flown at any Federal installation or facility in the area covered by that proclamation shall be flown at half-staff consistent with that proclamation. The flag shall be flown at half-staff 30 days from the death of the President or a former President; 10 days from the day of death of the Vice President, the Chief Justice or a retired Chief Justice of the United States, or the Speaker of the House of Representatives; from the day of death until interment of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a Secretary of an executive or military department, a former Vice President, or the Governor of a State, territory, or possession; and on the day of death and the following day for a Member of Congress. The flag shall be flown at half-staff on Peace Officers Memorial Day, unless that day is also Armed Forces Day.
Governors of states, territories, and possessions also have the authority under the federal flag code to order a half-staffing, as does the mayor of Washington, D.C. It's not uncommon for a local mayor to order a half-staffing following the death of some prominent citizen, and occasionally businesses will half-staff their flags to honor the passing of a member of the company. Technically, these sorts of half-staffings aren’t covered by the federal flag code. There's no penalty for breaking the federal flag code, though, so it's generally not a big deal if a local leader wants to honor a prominent citizen in this way.
But what do you do if your flag pole is too short to fly it’s flag at half-staff? While there is no specific reference as to how best to observe a half-staffing on a shorter, residential flagpole
, the most common accepted practice is to add a black mourning bow
to the top of the pole to indicate mourning.