The Surprising History of the Pledge of Allegiance

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.

Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.
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About Author Profile: Rita Byrne Tull

Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.

30 thoughts on “The Surprising History of the Pledge of Allegiance

    October 24, 2012 at 18:06

    I must say, Ms Tull, it’s sentiments like those expressed in your second paragraph that lead me to wonder whether you even like your adopted country. Although very informative, your dispatches often seem to have the feel of those of a spy reporting from behind enemy lines.

    OTOH, I suppose it may be you have embraced your new homeland so fervently that you are now part of that segement of the American public that insists they are the most loyal and uncompromising patriots of all—anti-American Americans.

      Rita Byrne Tull
      October 24, 2012 at 18:25

      I rather like the idea of being “a spy reporting from behind enemy lines.” Thanks!

    October 24, 2012 at 18:27

    “In the mythology of American patriotism the Pledge of Allegiance has the status of a holy text carved in stone.”

    Carved in stone, eh? My prescription: take two tablets and see how you feel in the morning.

    Really, I doubt most Americans who are not enrolled in school think about the pledge even once a month.If outside a classroom you find a large gathering of Americans facing the flag with hand over heart, the odds are very good that the national anthem is being played, and pretty good that the national anthem is being played at an athletic event.

  3. Mr Bleaney
    October 24, 2012 at 18:27

    I’m confused. My confusion arises from Ms. Tull’s reference to “the right wing war-mongering classes.” Perhaps Ms. Tull or a kind Dabbler reader can help me.

    1. I am definitely a member of “the right wing.” However, I have never considered myself to be a “war monger.” Is it possible to be “right wing” without being a “war-monger”? Or do the two necessarily go together? Are they like peanut butter and jelly or tea and scones?

    2. If the two do not automatically go together, I am open to becoming a “war monger.” If I advocate the invasion of Canada, will I become a “war monger”? How about if I call for the imposition of economic sanctions on the Isle of Guernsey? If I were President of the United States, and I ordered drone strikes aimed at killing people, would I be a “war monger”? (Oh, wait, I know the answer to that last question: “It’s Bush’s fault!”)

    3. I had never realized, until seeing Ms. Tull’s formulation, that, as a right-winger, I am a member of a “class.” What are the qualifications for membership in this class? Net assets? School(s) attended? For or against fox-hunting? Favorite poet? (I’ll warn you in advance that I’m quite fond of Philip Larkin.)

    Regardless of the answers to these questions, I would like to hereby announce that the phrase “right wing war-mongering classes” is hereby awarded The Inaugural Annual Eric Hobsbawm Award For The Most Cliched Political Cant Phrase (Circa 1968).” Congratulations!

      Rita Byrne Tull
      October 24, 2012 at 18:41

      I accept your kind award with honor!

      October 24, 2012 at 18:59

      Allow me to try to help, Mr. Bleaney:

      Is it possible to be “right wing” without being a “war-monger”?

      Yes, but only if you are prepared to accept “racist” as a substitute.

      If I advocate the invasion of Canada, will I become a “war monger”?

      Not necessarily, but you will show your age. Try thinking outside the box. Have you considered Australia?

      What are the qualifications for membership in this class?

      Tattoos and a plastic Jesus. Alternatively, employment as a sherriff in the South, membership in an oilman’s club in Dallas or residency in a gun-filled cabin in Idaho..

    David Cohen
    October 24, 2012 at 23:18

    It’s quite astonishing that someone can live in any country as long as Ms. Tull has lived here and remain so conspicuously ignorant of its fundamental nature, culture and history.

    She is, of course, entirely right about the right-wing war-mongering class, the members of which include those renowned fascists George Washington; Abraham Lincoln; Woodrow Wilson (our only actually evil president); both Roosevelts, but only Teddy con brio; Harry Truman; Kennedy; Johnson; Obama; and me.

    David Cohen
    October 24, 2012 at 23:23

    Although, kudos to Ms Tull for admitting what most others deny; that “socialist” and “fascist” are in fact two names for the same (brutal, murderous, wasteful, fantastic and dictatorial) ideology.

      Rita Byrne Tull
      October 25, 2012 at 01:54

      Nothing I wrote implies fascist and socialist are the same. I utterly reject that notion. Perhaps you are misled by the coincidence that the American Socialist party of the 19th century called themselves the Nationalists.

        David Cohen
        October 25, 2012 at 02:17

        Yes, I’m not sure how I thought you had confused the Nationalist Socialists with the straight arm salute for Nazis.

      • Frank Key
        October 26, 2012 at 09:17

        I suspect Americans conflate Socialism and Communism, whereas woolly liberal Brits have a more nuanced view, where Socialism is nice and fluffy and Communism is a tad harsh.

        For of the average citizen of the 20th century living under a Communist or Fascist regime was equally awful. Lefties seem curiously unable to admit as much. Witness a new EU poster campaign promoting togetherness, which includes a hammer-and-sickle.

        • Frank Key
          October 26, 2012 at 09:19

          Oops! Delete that “of” in the second paragraph above.

          October 26, 2012 at 20:10

          Oh, I know the difference. Communists are what you get when you give the Socialists guns.

    October 25, 2012 at 00:12

    David, what I find mystifying is the juxtaposition of Ms. Tull’s concern about the inflammatory war-mongering nature of the Pledge with her guilty regret at not singing her home country’s anthem. To my knowledge the British don’t have a pledge, but when you Yanks sing your anthem, it’s a bit like a love-in with everybody grooving on how cool some tattered flag looks during nocturnal son et lumière shows and in the morning light. A song for stoned hippies. By contrast, the Brits brazenly invoke the Deity’s help in confounding everyone else’s politics and frustrating their knavish tricks. Doesn’t exactly say peace and brotherhood, does it? And they wonder why the rest of us are on edge. They sometimes try to get out of it by claiming they’re only talking about the French, but if that’s all they meant, why didn’t they say so in the first place?

      David Cohen
      October 25, 2012 at 02:16

      I always just assume its what they sing to celebrate the perpetual birthday of that sweet old lady they trot out on special occasions.

    • Brit
      October 25, 2012 at 08:56

      I honestly can’t remember ever having sung the second verse. At any rate, I don’t know the words.

  7. Brit
    October 25, 2012 at 08:54

    An American lady on the radio the other day was claiming that the bizarre big-endian/little-endian cultural war that is US political discourse has now reached the point where Republican and Democrat voters don’t like to mix with each other socially.

      October 25, 2012 at 09:00

      Well Romney doesn’t drink, so he’s off my Christmas party list.

      October 25, 2012 at 18:38

      It is possible in the US to live a busy life and seldom meet socially those of other opinions. In Odessa, Texas, it probably takes some effort to find a Democrat. Residents of Takoma Park, Maryland, might have to catch the Metro down to Capitol Hill to encounter a Republican.

      Nor is this especially new. A friend, like myself a baby boomer, says that in growing up in Bayonne, New Jersey, she never met a Protestant or a Republican.

      As for those who live in disputable ground, I don’t know. If the parties are not prepared to step back and discuss matters in a detached way, it might be better to leave politics out of the discussion entirely. But not everyone discusses politics at the volume of the talk shows.

      • Brit
        October 26, 2012 at 13:14

        America is mad.

          October 26, 2012 at 18:10

          1. Of course.

          2. But if this bored us, where we go to find a sane country? Stendahl seemed to think, not England: “–Primo, dit Julien, l’Anglais le plus sage est fou une heure par jour;”

          Rita Byrne Tull
          October 26, 2012 at 20:15

          If so, my Dispatches are ravings from the Asylum rather than reports from “a spy behind enemy lines.”

      David Cohen
      October 25, 2012 at 21:51

      While I’m sure there’s some of that (particularly over the next few weeks, when focal bias will convince us that our future happiness depends entirely on who’s elected president), it sounds to me like your American woman is overstating things. Speaking as a proud member of the right-wing war-mongering class who’s every social indicator points left (Jewish academic from Massachusetts), some of my best friends are on the left and show no signs of tossing me overboard.

      I am amused, though, by how often my friends on the left, after knowing me a while, lower their voice and whisper a confession of some right wing view that they just can’t shake. It tends to be about some area in which they are expert; most people are conservative about those things they know best.

  8. Gaw
    October 25, 2012 at 09:35

    Why bother having a ‘right wing war-mongering class’ when you have such a vigorous (if endlessly entrenched) cultural civil war going on at home? High energy levels, probably. There but for the grace of Her Maj.

    As ever with war it’s a dubious privilege to act as host.

    October 25, 2012 at 15:29

    I think the mark of a really good writer/journalist/blogger is to get your readers engaged…and you have certainly done that, Rita. Kudos!

    Seonaidh Vander
    October 26, 2012 at 05:16

    The Pledge of Allegiance is about respect for this nation, same as the National Anthem & God Bless America. I don’t see what difference it makes if you are a Democrat or Republican, a Christian, Jew or Muslim. If you live in the USA you should be proud to recite the POA, NA & GBA. If you don’t like it go and live for a while in China, Russia, North Korea or some Godforsaken poverty stricken third world banana Republic run by an oppressive dictator. I promise you will soon change your mind and come back to the good old USA to enjoy the freedoms that we take for granted. The Pledge of Allegiance should be mandatory in all schools & colleges, and private companies should be allowed to insist their employees recite it every morning when they start work if they so choose. It matters not at all that it was originally penned by a socialist. Freedom is for everyone.

    • Worm
      October 26, 2012 at 10:44

      Nothing says “Freedom” like being forced to sing a song about it at work

    October 26, 2012 at 20:09

    Leaving all this to one side, the Pledge of Allegiance is odd, and somewhat worrisome. I’ve done it, probably, thousands of times and can still recite it by heart (although after leaving school most adults might be called on to recite the pledge only two or three times in their life). But I really have no idea what it means to pledge allegiance to a flag, particularly since we then go on to add the republic for which it stands, as if the pledge to the flag is not in fact symbolic (as we might think) but is in fact independent of and equal to our allegiance to the republic. I mean I like the flag, and I swell with pride upon seeing it, and it symbolizes the nation I love, and all that, but I can’t say that I’m loyal to it (I see other flags) or obey it (although if the flag suddenly told me to do something, I’d probably pay close attention).

    I really don’t know why we don’t just cut out “the flag” and pledge allegiance to the United States of America. Tradition, I suppose, and once we’ve said tradition, I’m hooked.

    October 27, 2012 at 13:42

    I grew up with many pledges. There was the Pledge of Allegiance, the Girl Scout Pledge and the Baltimore catechism . Their effect? My rebellious 60’s aside, I believe they all blended together. The result has been a belief in having a code of moral and community behavior . No wonder I embraced librarianship when I discovered the American Library Association’s creed on the Freedom to Read!

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