June 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 4
Invented as part of a magazine promotional scheme in 1892, the Pledge of Allegiance has had a controversial career right from the start
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:
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 .
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:
Even before it was made official, the pledge became the focus of legal attacks by religious and conscientious objectors. In 1940 a Pennsylvania couple, who were members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, insisted that a school regulation requiring children to recite the pledge and salute the flag each day was contrary to the Book of Exodus’ injunction against servitude to any graven image. Their argument was ultimately rejected by the Supreme Court, which upheld a state’s right to impose the pledge. Three years later, however, the Court reversed its previous decision in a suit brought by a West Virginia couple, declaring that no one could “force citizens to confess by word or act” their loyalty. Subsequent decisions broadened this ruling, and today no child or adult can be compelled to recite the pledge or even stand during the ceremony—a freedom that is not always honored in practice.
The words of the Pledge of Allegiance managed to remain unchanged for a little more than ten years; then, once again, a war—the Korean—served as an impetus to patriotism. In April, 1953, Representative Louis C. Rabaut of Michigan received a letter from a man who suggested adding two words to the pledge that its author, the Reverend Mr. Bellamy, apparently never thought of—“under God.” Rabaut was impressed by the idea—Lincoln had used those very words in his Gettysburg Address—and he introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives to amend the pledge. The proposal drew a chorus of approval from most churches, labor unions, patriotic groups, radio stations, and newspapers. But there were dissenters, too; though fewer in number, they were just as vocal. The Unitarian Ministers Association and the Freethinkers of America charged that the addition would violate religious freedom as implicit in the First Amendment’s guarantee of separation of church and state. Somebody suggested that everything would be all right if a further addition were made: the words “if any” after “under God.” “Everyone,” a citizen wrote to the New York Times , “has to believe in God if he wants to pledge allegiance to the flag. How is this consistent with the end of the Pledge of Allegiance, ’… with liberty and justice for all’?”
The pro-“under God” forces received important support in a Lincoln Day sermon the following February. The Reverend George M. Docherty, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, where President Dwight D. Eisenhower worshipped, said, as the President sat in attendance , “There [is] something missing in the pledge, [something that is] … the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life. Indeed , apart from the mention of the phrase, ‘the United States of America ,’ it could be the pledge of any republic. In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer- and- sickle flag in Moscow. …”
Congress went on to pass a joint resolution adopting the change (apparently no one discovered that the Soviet Union has no such pledge, with or wothout “under God”), and on Flag Day, June 14, 1954, Eisenhower signed the revision into law. It now read, as it does today:
Congressman Rabaut went one step further. He asked songwriter Irving (“Tea for Two”) Caesar to set the pledge to music and got the House to authorize the printing of more than three hundred thousand copies of the song. It was sung for the first time in the House chamber on Flag Day, June 14, 1955, by the official Air Force choral group, the Singing Sergeants. Despite a rousing rendition, the tune was quickly forgotten; it had none of the heroic fervor of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which, however unsingable, is a natural for a blood-stirring rendition by band or orchestra. For better or worse, the Pledge of Allegiance will have to make its claim to immortality without benefit of music.
Or perhaps Samuel Butler will prove right in the long run: “Oaths are but words,” he said back in 1663, “and words but wind.”