How the American Pledge of Allegiance Got Started
For many of us, school started each day with our right hands over our hearts, reciting the words to the Pledge of Allegiance. Similar to the Lord’s Prayer, we know the words and we say them, but we don’t necessarily know why. Kids today don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance before class in all schools as the laws have changed and you might be surprised at the many changes our Pledge has gone through compared to the one that we recite today.
The Balch Pledge
The first Pledge, which is often forgotten, was composed by Civil War veteran Admiral George Balch in 1887. This original Pledge of Allegiance was meant to be an oath of allegiance to the United States, the flag and the Republic. The Balch Pledge included the phrase:
“We give our heart and heads to God and our country, one country, one language, one flag.”
Balch’s version of the Pledge was embraced by many schools, the Daughters of the American Revolution (until the 1910s), and by the Grand Army of the Republic (until 1923). Balch’s Pledge was very pro-American, anti-immigration, and was later called “too juvenile and lacking in dignity” by by Francis Bellamy.
The Bellamy Pledge
Written in August of 1892 by 37-year-old socialist minister Francis Bellamy, the “Bellamy Pledge” was published in The Youth’s Companion on September 8, 1892 as a part of the National Public-School Celebration of Columbus Day. The event was not a coincidence. Conceived and promoted by the marketer of the magazine, James B. Upham, the event was intended to instill American nationalism in students. But, Upham also wanted to profit from this by selling American flags to schools across the country. Upham said to his wife “Mary, if I can instill into the minds of our American youth a love for their country and the principles on which it was founded, and create in them an ambition to carry on with the ideals with which the early founders wrote into The Constitution, I shall not have lived in vain.” Upham’s marketing tactic of pitching this new Pledge tied to the American flag would prove to be a huge success.
The hope was that this new Pledge would be recited by schoolchildren across the country and adopted in a display of unison to the new flag. The Bellamy Pledge read:
“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Bellamy wanted the Pledge to be quick, so it could be said in only 15 seconds. He also wanted it to include the words “equality” and “fraternity” but decided to leave these words out of his final version. He did this because he felt it would likely not be accepted by society as many people in this time were against equality for women and African Americans. Bellamy also hoped that it would be used by citizens in all countries.
The World’s Columbian Exposition
The World’s Columbian Exposition in 1892 would celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus arriving in the new world. President Benjamin Harrison declared Wednesday October 12, 1892 to be Columbus Day and an official program was made by “The Youth’s Companion” for the event. The timing of this event and promotion of the Pledge by Upham’s magazine served to further promote use of the new Pledge of Allegiance and unite Americans around a single, daily Pledge. However, in the book To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance, author Richard J. Ellis wrote that the Pledge was less about pledging allegiance to our country and more about addressing two common anxieties among those who had been born in America. One anxiety was the fear of new immigrants, particularly in the Northeast, and the second was the complacency of Americans after the Civil War.
The irony of worrying about native born Americans while Native Americans were being mistreated on reservations throughout America was apparently lost on these men. Ellis points out that Bellamy’s Pledge of Allegiance served two purposes: “rekindling the patriotism and heroic duty of the Civil War years, and to Americanize the foreigner.”
The Good Idea that Became a Bad Salute
One of Bellamy’s concerns was “the nub of the program was to be the raising of the flag, with a salute to the flag recited by the pupils in unison.” Therefore, Bellamy came up with the idea to salute the flag (some reports give the credit for this to Upham, however). The instructions to the “salute” were: “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.” If you are unable to imagine this, let me warn you that this “salute” would cause problems in later years.
In 1906, the magazine of the Daughters of the American Revolution, “The American Monthly,” listed the formal Pledge of Allegiance as the Balch Pledge which read:
“I pledge allegiance to my flag, and the republic for which it stands. I pledge my head and my heart to God and my country. One country, one language and one flag.”
It is interesting to note that God is mentioned in the Balch Pledge, but not mentioned in the Bellamy Pledge.
In 1923, at a National Flag Conference ran by the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution, it was argued that “my flag” should be changed to “the flag of the United States” because immigrant children might be confused as to which flag they were saluting. It was at this time that the Pledge was changed to read:
“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.”
In the late 1930s / early 1940s, another much larger problem began to surface. The lovely salute that Bellamy and Upham had adopted from Balch’s original pledge bore a striking resemblance to the Nazi salute. Americans were not keen on saying the Pledge of Allegiance at the same time that their hands were saying “Heil Hitler,” understandably. Some schools, Boys and Girls Scouts troops, and organizations such as the Red Cross came up with their own salute and an elementary school in the state of New Jersey required children to leave their hands on their hearts during the Pledge of Allegiance. By February of 1942 many schools had replaced the physical “Bellamy salute” in favor of an army salute and by December of 1942 Congress passed a “Flag Code” which stated that the “Pledge of Allegiance should be rendered by standing at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart.”
Congress Officially Recognizes the Pledge
On July 22, 1942, the year of the Pledge’s 50th anniversary, Congress officially recognized the Pledge for the first time, in the following form:
“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.”
Bellamy was not a fan of the change, however, and was quoated saying “it did injure the rhythmic balance of the original composition.”
And in the End, there Was “God”
Louis Albert Bowman from Illinois was the first to suggest the addition of “under God,” saying that the words came from Lincoln’s Gettsyburg Address (although not all manuscripts of the Gettsyburg Address have the words “under God” in them).
It was at a meeting on February 12, 1948 when Louis Bowman first said the Pledge with the addition of “under God.” By 1951, the Knights of Columbus, the largest Catholic fraternal service organization in the world, also began adding the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. In 1952, Holger Christian Langmack wrote a letter to President Truman suggesting that the phrase “under God” be added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Langmack was a Danish philosopher who had come to America in 1911 and was one of the originators of the National Prayer Breakfast. It is thought that Democrat Representative Louis C. Rabaut of Michigan sponsored a resolution to add the words “under God” to the Pledge in 1932.
In response to this new addition and with the Communist threats of the 1950s, President Eisenhower and Republican Represenative Charles Oakman presented a bill to Congress asking to officially add the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. The passing of this bill on Flag Day, June 14, 1954 created the 31-word Pledge that we 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.”
In 1935, before the addition of the clause “under God,” two Jehova’s Witness children, Lillian (10) and William (12) Gobitas, were expelled from school in Pennsylvania for refusing to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The case went to the Supreme Court in 1940 in Minersville v. Gobitas and it was ruled that students could be compelled to swear the Pledge. In 1943, the case of West Virginia v. Barnette, the Supreme Court reversed it’s 1940 decision. Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote the ruling for the 6 to 3 majority, and said that:
“public school students are not required to say the Pledge on narrow grounds, and asserted that such ideological dogma are antithetical to the principles of the country… If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith within.”
There have been recent legal issues with the Pledge as well. In 2002, the Pledge was again challenged by Michael Newdow, son of famous atheist Madeline Murray O’Hare. Newdow’s suit stated that his daughter was harmed by reciting the Pledge. It went on to say that if she refused to join in saying the Pledge, then she would be labelled an outsider and therefore be placed in danger or harmed. The appellate court agreed and today it is common for some schools throughout the United States to forego the morning Pledge ritual.
The lesson of the Pledge of Allegiance story is really that we are one country, made from people of all backgrounds and beliefs and that the ideals that this country was founded upon are not static, but rather living, fluid ideas which can be changed when and as needed.
- Library of Congress