It was 70 years ago when Congress formally adopted the Pledge of Allegiance. Since then, the Pledge has become one of our institutions that have touched us in so many ways: standing up with one’s hand over one’s heart at school, a scout meeting, or maybe at the graveyard ceremony of a beloved veteran.
For me, the Pledge will always be associated with a day I picked up my 2-year-old at his play school. On the way we passed a big flag flapping in the breeze. From the back seat came the solemn “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, invisible (sic), with liberty and justice for all.”
Although we think of the Pledge as one of the least political of our institutions, from the beginning, there has been a clear, though changing, political purpose.
Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister who had lost his church for his socialist leanings, devised the core for the Pledge. The Pledge was to coincide with the Columbian Exposition of 1893 that celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the New World.
To prepare its introduction into school-day Columbus Day celebrations, he published it in a leading children’s magazine. It read simply “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, with liberty and justice for all.”
Bellamy’s purpose was twofold. First, he wanted to recover some of the patriotism of the Civil War era. Second, and most importantly, he wanted to provide a patriotic emblem to schoolchildren, particularly those immigrant children who might have mixed national allegiances.
The United States, especially those states in the Northeast, saw hundreds of thousands of immigrants entering the country, many of them eastern and southern European. Moreover, their religion was Catholic or, more alarmingly, Jewish and perceived as permanently foreign.
Bellamy hoped that the Pledge could serve as a unifying force among the various groups. Interestingly, he wished to include “equality” in the pledge but reluctantly decided that would be disliked in the segregated South.
The fears of divided loyalties reappeared in 1923 when the National Flag Conference called for the words “my flag” in Bellamy’s original version to become “the Flag of the United States.” In this and prior developments, you can see the emphasis upon the Americanization of immigrant children.
The addition of “under God” in 1954 was the most controversial of the legal tests directed at the Pledge. Groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses protested at what they perceived as idolatry of the flag. Atheists and others consider “under God” to break the Bill of Rights’ commitment to the separation of church and state. In 2005, a bill introduced in Congress would have taken away the courts’ right to decide on all cases involving the Pledge.
The Pledge of Allegiance is thus our pledges of allegiance. It has always symbolized, as Bellamy intended, the union of a nation of different nationalities, religions and regions into one strong and cohesive whole. It stood for the vision of Bellamy’s hero, Abraham Lincoln, of one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
But, as time has passed and we face continuing crises, we have defined the nation in increasingly narrow political terms and have used the Pledge to symbolize these political views. Today, there are two movements from the right and left to amend the Pledge: the first, which ends “liberty and justice for all, born and unborn”; and the other, which inserts Bellamy’s original “equality, liberty and justice for all.”
Still, for me the Pledge will always be about promises to our nation and our nation to us.
It will always be the proud look of my firstborn when I pulled off the road after his impromptu recitation of the Pledge. His teacher later told me that he, the youngest at the play school, was transfixed with the older kids reciting the Pledge every morning. For my son the Pledge had come to resemble everything that was older and great, everything he aspired to do, everything that he hoped to become.
If our nation can live up to Bellamy and Lincoln’s vision of a nation with liberty and justice for all, then my son’s view is certainly appropriate. It would be good if more of us nowadays shared that view.
Mark Smith is a professor of American studies at The University of Texas at Austin.
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