Wednesday, December 28, 2011

That Socialist Pledge of Allegiance

There was a war on.  That might explain why Congress was in session on December 28, 1942 instead of taking their customary leisurely holiday break.  It was on that day that they finally stopped tinkering with an amendment to the Flag Code adopted earlier on June 22.  In doing so they officially recognized the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag first trotted out for Columbus Day, 1892.

Of course, there were some minor changes to the pledge crafted by Francis Bellamy for the popular children’s magazine Youth’s Companion, where the Baptist minister was on staff.  He was not only a Christian, but also a socialist and first cousin of the utopian socialist Edward Bellamy, whose novel Looking Backwards was one of the most influential books of the late 19th Century.

Pledges of allegiance were still controversial n those days.  After the Civil War former Confederates who wanted their civil rights restored had to swear allegiance to the Union.  Even as late as the 1890 the most un-reconstructed of the old veterans were still refusing to do so.

Bellamy hoped to include the younger generations of Southerners in a new mood of national reconciliation.  But he also wanted to include the children of waves of immigrants then flooding American cities making a new pledge of inclusiveness in their new nation.  He originally wanted to include the words equality and fraternity in the pledge to make that clear, but his editors feared that their inclusion would be resisted by school authorities.

The pledge as he drafted it was published in the magazine without attribution.  But it was promoted heavily to its 500,000 readers and endorsed by the National Education Association.  President William McKinley was prevailed upon to declare it part of the national Columbus Day observances of the 400 anniversary of the Italian navigator’s alleged discovery of the New World.  

On October 12, 1892 children across the country recited the following brief pledge at the opening of school:
I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands: one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
It could be said in 12 second flat.  As prescribed in the magazine, the children faced a flag being held by the teacher and held their right arms straight out, palms down in what became the Bellamy Salute.

This was meant to be a onetime event, timed to co-inside with the opening of the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago.  But it turned out to be so popular that some schools began using the pledge at the opening of assemblies, concerts, and sporting events.  Others made it a weekly or daily practice.  The hyper patriotism accompanying the Spanish American War and World War II spread the practice further.

Unfortunately for Bellamy, his hopes that the pledge would be inclusionary were dashed almost from the beginning.  Many interpreted it as a litmus test for Americanism—meaning native, White Protestants.  In some schools the children of non-citizen immigrants were forbidden from participating.  Elsewhere those whose religion was thought to preclude the recitations of oaths were debarred.  In the segregated schools of the South, white children often recited the pledge, but Black ones in their schools sometime did not lest they get the idea that they would ever have the rights of citizens.

Tinkering with the original words was meant to make these things clear.  In 1923 an outfit called the National Flag Conference changed the words from “my flag,” to “The Flag of the United States” so that ignorant immigrant children would not believe they were saluting the flag their home countries.  A year later, still unsatisfied, the changed to “The Flag of the United States of America.”

The June ’44 amendment to the Flag Act codified the words:

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.
The change made in December at the suggestion of President Franklin D. Roosevelt substituted the hand over the heart for civilians for the stiff armed Bellamy salute, which then had an uncomfortable resemblance to the salute used by the Nazis. 

Changes were not over.  During the post-war Red Scare complaints were rising that the pledge did not defend American values against Godless Communism.  Louis A. Bowman, a chaplain for the hyper-patriotic Sons of Liberty first inserted the words under God into the pledge in 1948. 

The following year Catholic Bishops, eager to prove that Catholics could be “real Americans” and concerned with attacks on the Church in the zone of Soviet influence in Europe and in parts of China under People’s Army control, began a campaign to have the additional language officially adopted.
Despite appeals to President Truman and resolutions introduced in Congress, no amendment to the words was made.

Freshly minted President Dwight Eisenhower had a problem.  Despite his enormous personal popularity as a World War II hero and easy election victory, the right wing of his own party distrusted him for coziness with the Soviets during the war.  Notoriously indifferent to religion, he had come under attack as an atheist.  To combat the later problem, Ike allowed himself to be baptized a Presbyterian, although neither his public practice of worship nor the general lack of God language in his speech changed much.  But on Lincoln’s Birthday, 1954 his ceremonial duties included attending worship at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, where Lincoln had also made occasional public displays of unfelt piety. The Rev. George MacPherson Docherty took advantage of his captive audience by launching into a sermon calling for the inclusion of the religious language in the pledge because Lincoln had apparently inserted the words under God in the Gettysburg Address as delivered.

Eisenhower recognized an opportunity to prove his Americanism and his Christianity.  The next day he forwarded a message to Congress asking the wording of the pledge be changed.  It passed through Congress like an Ex-Lax milkshake.  Ike was able to sign it into law with a flourish on June 14, 1954—Flag Day.

Civil libertarians have opposed the additional language ever since.  Many court challenges have been filed, but none have yet succeeded.  The best that they were able to do is allow children who could not in good conscience recite the pledge excuse themselves.  

The controversy, and a feeling that daily recitation was cutting into instructional time, has made about half the states drop the pledge or make it a local option.  In keeping with court decisions the rest of the states “encourage” children to participate in the pledge.

One suspects the whole thing is not what Francis Bellamy had in mind.


  1. It's very interesting that many people do not realize the actual history of this pledge. Protesting the removal of the phrase, "under God" shows this lack of knowledge. This phrase was inserted, then it was removed...nothing "un-American" about it. I would say that the phrase, "with liberty and justice for all" needs to be respected more...and practiced more. We seemed to have forgotten the real definition of the word "equal" and "equality". Pity.