To The Flag

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Upham died in 1905 without ever claiming authorship. However, when Bellamy, who was then no longer on the staff, sought the honor a few years later, The Youth’s Companion initiated the dead man’s claim. Upham, it asserted in a pamphlet published in 1917, had written the pledge “in tentative form,” which was then “moulded” into final form by members of the firm and editors. Bellamy, the magazine insisted, “was not the author …”

There, one would think, the matter should have ended, but no—Bellamy persisted and was so persuasive that when he died in 1931 the New York Times , in his obituary, unequivocally said he had written the pledge. Upham’s descendants cried foul, and the families of both men started taking pot shots at each other’s claims. The United States Flag Assocation tried to settle the controversy in 1939; it asked two historians and a political scientist to sift the evidence from the two factions. Their conclusion—that Bellamy was the author—was, however, challenged by a one-man, self-appointed committee named Gridley Adams. Adams, an expert on the flag whose maternal great-great-grandfather had roomed with Nathan Hale at Yale, said the data clearly indicated that Upham had dictated the words to Bellamy.

Adams deluged the World Almanac with letters until, in its 1950 edition, the yearly publication conceded that Bellamy had written the pledge “at the suggestion” of Upham. There the seesaw dispute rested until 1957, when, at the urging of Representative Kenneth B. Keating, whose district covered Bellamy’s hometown of Rome, New York, a special research team of the Library of Congress pronounced Bellamy the author.

Meanwhile, the fate of the pledge had become linked with Adams’ chief concern—the proper use and display of the flag. By 1920 more than twenty patriotic organizations had each published civilian flag codes of their own, no two of which were alike. Adams brooded continually about the way the flag was ignominiously hung over speakers’ platforms and carelessly draped over statues at unveilings. After an intensive study of heraldry, he drew some sketches to describe how and when the flag should be flown. (His most fervent admonition was that the canton, where the stars are, should always be on the dexter, or right, side of the flag, the position of honor- that is, to the viewer’s left.) Adams showed his sketches to a neighbor, cartoonist Clare Briggs, who reprinted them in his column in the New York Herald Tribune in 1922. The reader response was so overwhelming and so critical (most patriotic societies took issue with Adams’ version) that the War Department, although limited only to issuing flag guides for the Army and the Navy, unofficially let it be known that it supported Adams.

The one-man crusade also attracted the attention of the National Americanism Commission of the American Legion, which called a national meeting of patriotic groups to work out a common flag code. The conference was held in Washington, D.C., in 1923. With the War Department’s backing, Adams was chosen by the delegates as permanent chairman of a new National Flag Code Committee to settle, once and for all, how civilians should be advised to fly the flag.

Adams immediately proposed that the Pledge of Allegiance, as it was now being called, should be part of such a flag code. He also made two recommendations. He urged that the words “my flag” be dropped in favor of “the Flag of the United States.” (“I didn’t like a pledge that any Hottentot could subscribe to,” he remarked in an unconscious and unwarranted tribute to the government of South Africa.) Adams also recommended that instead of saluting the flag when reciting the pledge, civilians should place their right hands over their hearts—men with hat in hand, if wearing one. Both proposals were unanimously adopted by the delegates.

When Adams returned the following year to a second national flag conference, he took the opportunity to clarify further the rephrasing already agreed upon. This time the words “of America” were added to the pledge so that it now began, “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America …” (“I thought people ought to be sure which united states they’re talking about,” Adams explained, having evidently learned about Brazil and Mexico.)

His successes notwithstanding, Adams still hoped that the federal government would adopt his flag code, thus adding officialdom’s blessing and the permanency of law. For years he pressed congressmen to introduce flag bills, but ran into apathy.

It took the emotional zeal of World War n to make Congress finally adopt an official flag code, the first set of such rules issued since the nation was founded. Public Law 623 was passed in June, 1942, and revised, after Adams made some salient suggestions, in Public Law 829, which was enacted that December. The pledge was adopted as part of the code. It now read, after some minor changes in punctuation and capitalization:

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, Jor all.