Hammered into so many millions of Americans’ brains, the pledge we know so well isn’t an organic outgrowth of national ardor. It’s top-down patriotism, a prescriptive ritual that relies less on heart and more on automation—and that’s by design.
First thing’s first, there were once two pledges of allegiance. The original was a simple one-liner penned in 1887 by veteran-turned-teacher George Balch: “We give our heads and hearts to God and our country; one country, one language, one flag.” Like many of his era, Balch worried patriotism was waning, and he hoped his ode would help indoctrinate both children and immigrants with love of country. But though his pledge had national recognition for a while—the Daughters of the Revolution were hot on it for decades—it was eventually eclipsed by the one we all know so well, the pledge penned by Francis Bellamy, in 1892.
Francis Bellamy shouldn’t be confused with Edward Bellamy, socialist author of the seminal utopian tome Looking Backward. That’s Francis’ older cousin, but the younger Bellamy was just as left-leaning, a stance that cost him his job as a Baptist preacher but earned him the respect of Daniel Ford, Boston-based publisher of the popular magazine The Youth’s Companion. Like Balch, Ford believed children should be taught love of ‘Merica right alongside reading, writing and ‘rithmatic, and in 1888 he embarked on a four-year mission to spread the American flag to schools and homes across the land, using his magazine as the media for a patriotic message.
These flags weren’t free, of course. They cost $10 (which comes to $250 in 2017 dollars), and within four years Ford and his team had sold 26,000, raking in $260,000 in the process (which comes to $6.5 million in 2017 dollars), largely from public school students who pooled their money. Ford knew there was even more room for manufactured patriotism and profit, especially with the forthcoming 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America. So, with that in mind, he tasked Bellamy with writing a new and improved pledge.
Equally concerned about flagging patriotism—“The time was ripe for a reawakening of simple Americanism,” he later said.—Bellamy jumped at the opportunity, and in early 1892 he turned in the following version: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with fraternity, equality, liberty and justice for all.”
Fine, Ford said, but “fraternity” and “equality” needed to be excised; not only were these nods to the French Revolution too foreign, they made ongoing Jim Crow laws too glaring. Bellamy complied, ending with the more staid iteration: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Ford loved it, and so did the National Education Association, which agreed to distribute the flag and new pledge to 60,000 schools, accelerated in large part by President Benjamin Harrison’s own push for patriotism: That June he issued an executive order demanding flags fly in classrooms to “impress upon our youth the patriotic duties of American citizenship.” Thus, on October 12, 1892, four hundred years after Columbus arrived in America, students from sea-to-shining sea joined together in reciting Bellamy’s Pledge of Allegiance. And they haven’t stopped since. (As for Ford and Youth’s Companion: they made $1,626 in profit, or, in today’s money, a little over $41,000. Top-down patriotism clearly paid.)
Yes, there have been some other edits to Bellamy’s version over the years: “My flag” was changed to “the flag of the United States” in 1923, when U.S. Congress enacted the Flag Code, making Bellamy’s version official and icing out Blach’s unfashionable old pledge; “of America” was added in 1924, part of an extended larger effort to make the pledge even more accessible to immigrants; and then there was the 1954 addition of “under God” after “one nation.”
Though “under God” was dressed up as a non-secular homage to Lincoln’s use of the phrase in the Gettysburg address—“These dead shall not have died in vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom”—it was the result of years’ worth of religious lobbying, which found a sympathetic ear in a recent Presbyterian convert, President Dwight Eisenhower. (The freshly “saved” Ike also made “In God We Trust” our national motto two years later, in 1956.) No one noted in 1954 that Lincoln’s usage of “under God” was more akin to “God willing,” a fact Geoffrey Nunberg noted in 2004. Not that too many would have cared, anyway.
Most Americans didn’t think about the words of pledge, they just said it—and that’s just what Balch and Bellamy wanted. Both wrote to odes to a nation where individuality is allegedly celebrated, but envisioned their pledges as robotic recitations. They specified not just the pace of the words, but also the physicality. Balch directed: “The right arm is extended, pointing directly at the flag…. The arm is bent so as to touch the forehead lightly…. The right hand is carried quickly to the left side and placed flat over the heart.” The pledge and its movements should be “made mechanical and without mental effort,” Balch wrote in the Journal of Education in 1894. Yet, paradoxically, he went on, this rote repetition should be delivered with “conscientious belief in the truth of the words spoken.”
And while Bellamy admitted his pledge was more abstract than it should be—“[It’s] a bunch of ideas rather than concrete names… This pledge would seem far better adapted to educated adults than to children”—he too overcame potential incomprehension with strident commands that made it mindlessly automatic. In addition to being uttered in under 15 seconds, Bellamy instructed: “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.”
That one-armed gesture would be replaced with the familiar hand over heart post in post-Nazi 1942, when Congress calcified the 1923 Flag Code into law, making Bellamy’s Pledge official top tune, once and for all. Not incidentally, this was the same year the national anthem first appeared at baseball games, a symptom of hyper nationalism in Pearl Harbor’s wake. And, more germane to contemporary times, this was also one year after the Supreme Court ruled against this brand of enforced patriotism.
While most Americans had (and have) long blindly pledged allegiance to the flag, just as they’re told, there have some dissenters over the years, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses who equate pledges with idolatry, a violation of their religious beliefs. It was a group of Jehovah’s who filed the 1940 Supreme Court case Minersville School District v. Gobitis, a case they lost, and it was Jehovah’s who brought the 1943 case, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnett, a case they won. Siding 6-3 in the group’s favor, the justices ruled that forcing people to go against their beliefs vis a vis the pledge violated the Constitution; one particular judge, however, Justice Robert H. Jackson, offered more elaborate and resounding remarks.
“To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds,” he wrote, defending citizens’ ability to think for themselves (though, sadly, not enough do). Then, more forcefully, he added timeless remarks about prescriptive nationalism’s inherent pitfalls: “Nationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon,” yes, but the phenomenon had already been used for nefarious purposes, including “racial or territorial security [i.e. white supremacism], support of a dynasty or regime, and particular plans for saving souls.” So slippery is the slope that “[when] moderate methods to attain unity have failed, those bent on its accomplishment must resort to an ever-increasing severity,” the start of democratic disaster, because “those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters.”
These words bear remembering today, as Trump and his Anthem-adoring fans jeer, harangue and generally dis Americans who dare question routine patriotic displays like the Anthem, insisting their fellow Americans pledge unquestioning loyalty to concepts without explanation or justification. But all free-thinking Americans know just what Justice Jackson, and even Rush Limbaugh, know: patriotism can’t be forced upon the people. It must be earned, nurtured and constantly reexamined lest it be weaponized to sow discord and division.
Our American pledges, anthems and other melodic expressions of patriotism must mean something; they must correlate not only to abstract values, but to real life action, with commitment to the diversity of thought and inclusion that makes our nation so exceptional, because, as Justice Jackson wrote in 1943, “Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”