The Weird History of the Pledge of Allegiance
The patriotic promise may reflect more about America’s fears at certain moments in history than a stable, verbal vow of duty to one’s country.
I walked into the one-room schoolhouse just as the schoolmaster was leading the children in the Pledge of Allegiance. “Face the flag with your right hand over your heart, and then, as we say my flag, raise your arm in the air like so.”
The twenty children, ranging in age from five to thirteen and decked out in Little House on the Prairie attire, obeyed. With hands over their hearts, they pivoted toward the American flag in the corner of the room and began — making sure to extend their right arms when uttering the expression my flag:
I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands — one nation, indivisible — with liberty and justice for all.
Along with my family, I’m visiting a reconstructed 1840s schoolhouse on the outskirts of Chicago in which volunteers recreate a typical morning of instruction. In here, the year is 1893, Grover Cleveland is President, and the Pledge of Allegiance is barely a year old — and, you’ve likely deduced, quite different from the one most Americans speak today.
In fact, what you’ll also notice as you read further is that the Pledge — like virtually all writing and art — reflects more about America (as well as its fears) at certain moments in history than a stable, verbal vow of duty to one’s country and schoolroom.
The Bellamy Pledge (1892)
In 1892, a 37-year-old minister named Francis Bellamy pens the Pledge of Allegiance as part of a national patriotic school program, which would coincide with the opening of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The plan was for schoolchildren across the country to recite in unison this new promise to the American flag.
If you search online for information about the creation of the Pledge of Allegiance, this is mostly what you find: basic information about Bellamy and the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. But a deeper search reveals a far more xenophobic history.
In his book To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance, Richard J. Ellis digs further into the nation’s “patriotic” school program of 1892. Ellis writes that the creation of the Pledge actually reflected “two widespread anxieties among native-born Americans” at the time:
- the fear of new immigrants (especially in the Northeast), and
- the complacency of post-Civil War Americans oblivious to the dangers facing the country.
Bellamy’s new Pledge, then, would serve two purposes, Ellis argues: to rekindle the patriotism and heroic duty of the Civil War years, and to Americanize the foreigner.
The Bellamy/Upham Salute (1892)
In addition to the words of the Pledge, Francis Bellamy devised a salute. (Note: Some authors, like Richard J. Ellis above, credit the salute to Bellamy’s fellow writer James B. Upham.)
At the words to my Flag, the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.
Bellamy’s Pledge of Allegiance and his instructions for saluting the flag were published in Youth’s Companion, a Boston-based family magazine with a sizable subscription base and a periodical that…wait for it…offered American flags for purchase. The Pledge’s original form wouldn’t last long, however.
Clarity for Immigrants (1923–24)
In 1923, the pronoun my was dropped from the Pledge of Allegiance, and the words the Flag of the United States of America were added.
During the first National Flag Conference, the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution made this change so that immigrant children — who could theoretically be pledging their native land (rather than the U.S.) as they spoke — would be clear as to which flag they were saluting.
The following year, the National Flag Conference would further refine the pledge for the same reason, this time adding the words of America:
I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands — one nation, indivisible — with liberty and justice for all.
Um, Let’s Rethink That Salute (1930s)
Again, in his book To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance, Richard J. Ellis explains that by the mid-1930s, Americans had begun to notice eerie similarities between the Bellamy salute and the “Heil Hitler” salute.
Then, with the onset of WWII some women’s clubs, parent and teacher organizations, the Red Cross, and the Boys and Girls Scouts, for example, more vocally expressed their concerns about the parallels. Some schools even revised the salute on their own. Ellis reports that in September 1939, an elementary school in New Jersey required children to leave their hands on their hearts throughout the Pledge.
Finally, by February 1942, some schools had altogether replaced the “armed-extended salute” in favor of an “Army salute.”
Hearts, Not Hitler (1942)
With the growing concerns about American citizens’ being mistaken for Nazi sympathizers, the Bellamy salute was officially done away with in December of 1942. Congress passed an amended Flag Code decreeing the Pledge of Allegiance “should be rendered by standing at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart.”
Under God (1954)
The Pledge of Allegiance underwent yet another change in 1954. Responding to the threat of Soviet Communism (again more national fear), President Eisenhower encouraged Congress to add the words under God to the pledge.
This, he declared, would “reaffirm the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future” and “strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”
Congress’s 1954 amendment would create the Pledge of Allegiance most Americans say today:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Between these major alterations to America’s Pledge of Allegiance are other cases. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses have argued that “reciting the pledge violated their prohibition against venerating a graven image.” (In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled in their favor.)
Moreover, Atheists and advocates of religious tolerance have long spoken out about the addition of the phrase under God to the Pledge — as this “reference to a single deity” does not work for Buddhists, Zoroastrians, or Hindus. One of the most recent public cases involves a New Jersey high school student. (For more on these movements, see the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s “pledge cases.”)
So, the next time you hear someone express her opinion about the Pledge of Allegiance — We cannot alter the Pledge! No one can take God out of it! — you will know, based on its history, how best to respond.
This story was also picked up by Talking Points Memo.