To The Flag

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It has been said that true patriotism never flags; Dr. Samuel Johnson went further, declaring that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Certainly, in the panorama of American history, many a rogue can be detected peering from behind the American flag, and today a red, white, and blue decal is no guarantee of anything.

One might have corresponding doubts about the Pledge of Allegiance, which, after all, is a type of loyalty oath—and everyone knows that any traitor worth the name will unblushingly swear to anything, while he has riot and sedition in his heart. Actions do speak louder than words.

Nevertheless, the Pledge of Allegiance has been taken very seriously in this nation, and court battles continue over whether children should or should not be required to recite it as part of a school exercise. In view of this it is a somewhat surprising fact that its history is so short and erratic. The pledge was not written until 1892 and did not receive congressional blessing until fifty years afterward; it has been rephrased three times; and it has been the focus of controversy throughout its career.

The Founding Fathers never dreamed of asking citizens to swear their allegiance; the only oath prescribed in the Constitution is the simple one taken by a President at his inauguration. When the Pledge of Allegiance was conceived, it was part of a promotion campaign undertaken by The Youth’s Companion , a weekly magazine that featured uplifting, moralistic adventure stories for children.

In 1888 The Youth’s Companion embarked on a program of “advancing patriotism” by encouraging the flying of The Stars and Stripes “over every schoolhouse.” The campaign was notable in view of the void left by the nation’s lawmakers; there was no federal law stipulating where, when, or how the American flag should be displayed, and worse—in the eyes of many Americans—no restriction whatsoever on its use in advertisements and trademarks or on a wide variety of products. Lemon wrappers, doormats, tents, and underwear were adorned with Old Glory, and distillers proudly emblazoned their names on the flag for display outside liquor shops.

A grand opportunity presented itself as the fourhundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World approached in 1892. The Youth’s Companion seized the initiative and persuaded a national convention of state educators to set up a National Public School Celebration to mark the event. Details for the special school exercises were worked out by a committee that met in the magazine’s offices in Boston, with Francis M. Bellamy, an ordained Baptist minister who was one of the editors, serving as chairman. A twenty-three-word affirmation of loyalty written at the magazine—and proudly entitled “The Youth’s Companion Flag Pledge”—was made an integral part of the school celebrations.

 

The ceremonies were timed to coincide with the dedication of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. On October 19, 1892, pupils in that city gathered in assembly halls to hear a special proclamation from President Benjamin Harrison. Then, as they stood at attention, a color guard brought in the flag; as it was unfurled, the children saluted, fingertips to forehead, and said:

I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the Republic for which it stands: one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

The Youth’s Companion afterward boasted that twelve million children recited its pledge in similar exercises that same week—which would have included just about every boy and girl in every school in the nation’s fortyfour states, even those who might have been sick or playing hooky. In many schools the military salute gave way to a number of variations. In some the children held the right arm across the chest, palm downward; in others they extended the right hand toward the flag in what would now be taken as a Nazi salute. Everywhere the words of the pledge underwent strange transformations when young patriots tried to memorize them: “I pledge a legion …” became an all-too-common slip, as did “to the Republic for witches’ tan …” and “one nation, invisible …”

Nevertheless, the fervor of the phrases took such hold on the nation’s mind that more and more schools each year made recitation of the pledge a first-thing-in-themorning ritual. Legislators in New York State, which had already taken the initiative in legislation to prohibit desecration of the flag, voted in 1910 to order the pledge said each school day. Such acceptance was bound to lead to tributes to the author, whose name might have become as familiar to schoolchildren as Francis Scott Key’s. Unfortunately, two persons were singled out for credit, and few people today would remember either: Bellamy, who had chaired the Columbus celebration committee, and James B. Upham, a junior partner of the Perry Mason Company, publishers of The Youth’s Companion .