On September 8, 1893 a Pledge of Allegiance crafted by Francis Bellamy for the popular children’s magazine Youth’s Companion, where the Baptist minister was on staff, made its first appearance. 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 in 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 pledge of inclusion 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 in the South where equality would be viewed as an endorsement of Black rights just as Jim Crow laws were undoing the last shreds of Reconstruction. In the North business interests likewise might object to fraternity—brotherhood—for its identification with French Revolution and as possible support for labor unions which often styled themselves as Brotherhoods.
Moreover, there was already a Pledge of Allegiance of sorts in wide circulation and use. Five years earlier retired Rear Admiral George Balch who served as auditor to the New York Board of Education introduced a simple one line pledge and distributed thousands of classroom flags with the explicit intent of Americanizing immigrant children in public schools. Balch pledge was widely used in New York City and was spreading with the official endorsement of the Grand Army of the Republic and the Daughters of the American Revolution. The pledge read:
We give our heads and hearts to God and our country; one country, one language, one flag!
Bellamy and his editors considered the Balch pledge, “Too juvenile and undignified.” Besides, they had a specific event in mind in which children across the country would say the new Pledge on one day.The Pledge tapped an orgy of patriotic fervor triggered by the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's New World land fall on display at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Due to construction delays the fair did not open until 1893.
The Pledge of Allegiance was first trotted out for Columbus Day, 1892. The pledge as Bellamy 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 Benjamin Harrison 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.
Bellamy's simple original manuscript for his Pledge.
On October 12, 1893 children across the country recited the following brief pledge in conjunction with ceremonies at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago 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 known as the Bellamy Salute.
A turn of the 20th Century classroom of immigrant children recite the pledge using the stiff arm Bellamy Salute. Asian children in the class hint at a West Coast school.
Although intended as a onetime event, it turned out to be so popular that some schools began using the pledge at the openings 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.
Meanwhile the Blach pledge continued in use, although after the DAR switched its endorsement to Bellamy, that one began to seriously pull ahead.
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 those in Black schools often 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, they it changed to “The Flag of the United States of America.” After the 1923 Conference the GAR joined the newer American Legion in officially supporting the modified Bellamy pledge which pretty well killed remaining pockets of Blach loyalists.
So things stood until the U.S. entered World War II. That was 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 amendments to the Flag Code which had been adopted earlier in June. Of course, there were some minor changes to the pledge which was officially renamed the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag.
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.
World War II the Bellamy Salute was scrapped because of its resemblance
on the fascist salute and the words "of the United States of America"
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 that 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 speeches 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.
When the words "under God" were added in 1954 schools were sent materials like these with the subliminal message that the revised Pledge was wrapped in traditional imagery that inferred it had roots with the Founding Fathers.
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 accomplish is allow children who could not in good conscience recite the pledge to excuse themselves without penalty.On one hand Civil Libertarians have objected to the use of "Under God" in Public Schools and compulsory participation. On the other near riots have erupted at some school board meetings when children were allowed to recite the pledge in Spanish or other languages.
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 which now reads:
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.
One suspects the whole thing is not what Francis Bellamy had in mind.