The History and Etiquette of Lowering Flags to Half Staff

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DES MOINES, Iowa — President Donald Trump ordered all flags to be lowered to half staff to honor President George H.W. Bush following his death. He died on Friday, November 30, 2018.

According to the Curator Leo Landis at the State Historical Museum of Iowa, the tradition of lowering flags to half staff dates back to the early 1900’s in the United States.

“We had fought both the Civil War and the Spanish American War and in order to honor soldiers who had fought, the tradition was, on Memorial Day, the flags would go to half staff and then at noon on Memorial Day it would rise fully to the full staff height,” Landis said.

According to Governor Kim Reynolds’ office, Gov. Reynolds asked for flags to be lowered to half staff 11 times and President Trump asked for it 12 times, for a total of 23 in 2018 in Iowa.

“The tradition that we have today was codified or done as an executive proclamation by President Eisenhower in 1954 and it was really to have a standard in the US Flag Code saying here are the people that are deserving of having the flag fly at half staff,” Landis said.

The proclamation to order lowering flags has to come from either the president or the governor, but anyone can make a request.

Landis said there isn’t a penalty for not lowering a flag.

“It’s just incredibly bad form when the leader of our nation makes a proclamation asking all US citizens and people living in this country to participate in a period sorrow and recognition. It just seems unfathomable to me to not participate in that,” Landis said.

Flags can be at half staff for anywhere from several hours to even 30 days like the recent request following President Bush’s death.

“The federal standard is one standard but we could actually, as a state, keep it up longer at half staff for a longer period of time,” Landis said.

Landis said this special honor is reserved for people who have served the United States in an important way.

“It’s something that’s done to say these are people who have served our country. They ought to be recognized and especially in the case of a president, we want to recognize their service,” Landis said.