The Pledge of Allegiance, penned by a socialist who wished it to be accompanied with a Nazi-style salute? Surely not! Rita investigates…
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.
My eldest grandson started kindergarten this fall. He’s a precocious five-year-old, of course, and comes home every afternoon eager to show off what he learned at school. One recent afternoon he solemnly placed his hand over his heart and recited The Pledge of Allegiance as they do every morning before class begins. He tripped up a bit over the tongue twister “indivisible” but was otherwise word perfect. I was surprised how moving I found this performance, as I’ve always had ambivalent feelings about patriotism. Such a powerful emotion so easily manipulated for nefarious ends. I admonished myself that no doubt German grandmothers in the 1930’s beamed proudly as their little ones recited Nazi Youth propaganda. I remember that as university students in the 1960’s my friends and I would ostentatiously walk out of the theater at the end of a film while the National Anthem was playing. (Do they still play it in English film theaters today I wonder?) We were eager to demonstrate our rejection of the stuffy patriotism of our elders, the old world of duty and Empire. But I’ve often looked back on that behavior with a feeling of shame. Those middle-aged and elderly people who stood and sang the Anthem as we dismissively pushed past fought in World War II, survived the Blitz, endured the hardships of postwar austerity. If not for them we might be living in a Nazi dictatorship instead of enjoying the benefits of expanded educational opportunity and the liberating youth culture of the Swinging Sixties. Their sacrifice granted us the freedom to reject their values.
My skepticism endures, however, when it comes to American jingoistic fervor, in recent decades a primary tool of the right wing war-mongering classes. In the mythology of American patriotism the Pledge of Allegiance has the status of a holy text carved in stone. The Almighty himself handed it down to the Founding Fathers, probably on the hilltop at Monticello while slaves toiled in the fields below. The Stars and Stripes fluttering from his celestial robes, God pointed to the words “under God” highlighting His own primary jurisdiction over the new nation. But the true story of the Pledge is really more surprising – it was written by a socialist in 1892 and included no mention of God until the 1950’s.
Francis Bellamy was a Baptist minister in Boston who espoused Christian Socialism, lecturing on such topics as “Socialism in the Bible.” He became Vice-President of the Christian Society of Socialists, an offshoot of the Nationalist movement inspired by the work of his cousin Edward Bellamy, a novelist whose books are seldon read today. But his 1887 novel Looking Backward was a bestseller in its time, named the third most popular work of nineteenth century American fiction after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben Hur. A group of economists named it the second most influential economics text after Marx’s Das Capital. Inspired by the labor unrest that culminated in the 1886 Haymarket Riots in Chicago, Looking Backward paints a utopian vision of a future classless society in which capitalism has been replaced by a government run economy for the equal benefit of all. Enthusiastic readers founded the Nationalist movement, which became closely allied with the Fabian Society in England.
But socialism was still a suspect ideology in America. Francis Bellamy eventually antagonized his congregation so much with socialist sermons that he was forced out of the ministry. He went to work for The Youth’s Companion, a popular magazine whose editor admired him, and he became active in the National Education Association as chairman of the State Superintendents Committee. It was in this role that he came to write the Pledge of Allegiance, originally intended for schools to use as part of the Columbus Day celebrations in 1892. The original version as published in The Youth’s Companion read “I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the republic for which it stands” with no specific reference to the United States of America. Bellamy later wrote about the thinking that led to his choice of words. “One nation indivisible” was a reference to the blood shed for the Union in the Civil War, that it not be in vain and the nation not be divided again. He wanted to include “equality” along with “liberty and justice” but the State Superintendents were opposed to equality for women and African-Americans and vetoed it.
From its beginnings the Pledge was a compromise statement reflecting the consensus of American opinion, and as such it was subject to changing times and values. It was anxiety about the large number of immigrants with possibly divided loyalties that prompted the first change. Just in case those foreigners were thinking of another flag when they recited “my flag,” the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution lobbied to insert “the flag of the United States” in 1923, and to make absolutely sure they added “of America” in 1924. Pressure from conservative Christians prompted President Eisenhower to sign a bill adding “under God” in 1954, despite the objections of Francis Bellamy’s granddaughter. By the last decade of his life the former minister no longer attended church because he was so disillusioned by the racism and lack of social conscience he found there. The words “under God” in the Pledge are still contentious and the subject of numerous lawsuits over the issue of separation of Church and State.
Francis Bellamy not only wrote the words but also devised the flag ceremony that went along with the Pledge. He prescribed a salute, hand outstretched toward the flag with palm down, which was used in classrooms across the nation for decades [see picture above]. Unfortunately, this was exactly the same as the salute adopted by the Nazis. So in 1942 Congress hastily passed a bill to replace the salute with the now traditional hand over heart gesture.
The idea that the Pledge was written by a socialist would probably come as a shock to most Americans. The word is most often heard these days as a slur, an inaccurate one, hurled at President Obama. But I felt an affinity with Francis Bellamy as I read about him. My own father, a devout Catholic, often declared “Jesus Christ was the first socialist,” sparking many a dinner table debate. My grandson’s recitation sparked some family debate too as my daughter tried to explain some of the words in terms a five-year-old would understand. She explained “liberty” and “justice” and finished up by telling him that the most important words are the very last ones: “for all.” My father would have been proud.