The Pledge of Allegiance was drafted in two hours on a sweltering August night in 1892.
On Oct. 12, 1892, schoolchildren inaugurated an American tradition that continues more than a century later: They recited the Pledge of Allegiance. The occasion was the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America, and the promoter of the Pledge was a popular national magazine called the Youth’s Companion.
At the end of the 19th century, the Civil War was still a recent memory, industrialization was proceeding apace and immigrants were streaming into the country. It was a time of national upheaval, and the Companion’s owner and editors decided to champion a cause worth reviving today. They believed that part of their magazine’s mission was to promote national pride and encourage the egalitarian ideals that were at the heart of American democracy.
This was also the job of the public schools, they believed. The schools’ “great task,” the magazine editorialized, was to make each child a “thorough going American.” The flag flying over your local school today comes courtesy of the Youth’s Companion too, which had earlier launched a successful program to encourage public schools to display the Stars and Stripes.
All this and other compelling details about the origin of the Pledge of Allegiance are recounted in “The Pledge,” a concise and often entertaining history by Peter Meyer and the late Jeffrey Owen Jones. As the authors show, the Pledge’s popularity hasn’t faded after more than a century of use. It is a powerful unifying ritual that brings together Americans in an affirmation of shared patriotism. At the same time, it has been “a lightning rod for bitter controversy,” including three decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Pledge was the brainchild of Francis Bellamy, a 36-year-old Baptist minister who worked at the Youth’s Companion. It was included in the magazine’s suggested school program for the first Columbus Day, along with a reading of President Benjamin Harrison’s proclamation of the holiday, the singing of “America,” the reciting of a prayer and a patriotic oration. At the time, no one thought that the Pledge—then known as the “salute to the flag”—would last beyond the 1892 event.
The Pledge wasn’t the only flag salute in use at the time, and one of the pleasures of this book is to become acquainted with now-forgotten expressions of patriotism from a time when citizens were more open and direct about declaring their love of country. The Balch Salute, written in 1885 by a New York City teacher, had a brief run of popularity. It read: “I give my heart and my hand to my country—one country, one language, one flag.”
Bellamy found the Balch Salute “juvenile” and wanted something more dignified, with greater historical meaning. He composed the Pledge in two hours on a sweltering August evening. The result, Messrs. Jones and Meyer say, was a “clean, easy- flowing, and pleasantly cadenced piece of writing.” This kind of “compact prose” is “deceptively difficult” to write, they note. In the hands of a lesser craftsman, the Pledge would have disappeared into oblivion.
The original Pledge contained 22 words, compared with 31 today, and Messrs. Jones and Meyer trace the development of each iteration. The first change occurred when Bellamy, dissatisfied with how the Pledge sounded when he heard it recited, aimed to improve the rhythm by adding the word “to” in front of “the Republic.” In 1923, some Americans worried that the Pledge didn’t name the U.S. and worked to change the original “I pledge allegiance to my flag” to “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States.” In 1924, the words “of America” were added to the same phrase. Also in 1924, the Pledge began to be accompanied by a raised-arm salute, a practice that was abandoned as Hitler rose to power.
The fourth change came in 1954, when the Knights of Columbus lobbied for the addition of the words “under God.” Congress passed a resolution authorizing the change, and it was signed into law by President Eisenhower. In the 1970s there was a failed proposal to change the ending of the Pledge to “with liberty, justice and responsibilities for all.” Nice idea—citizenship carries duties—but it sounded lousy.
Legal challenges started in the first years of the 20th century, when states passed laws mandating that the Pledge be recited in the public schools. In an era less given to litigation than ours, many of the early objections were settled privately. Students whose religious or political convictions precluded them from reciting the Pledge were usually suspended for a few days and then quietly encouraged to arrive at school after the Pledge had been said.
Courts that heard early Pledge cases usually ruled against those who wanted to opt out. In 1918, Mennonites sued and lost, earning a stern lecture from a judge who warned that the refusal to say the Pledge was the “forerunner of disloyalty and treason.” But the most vigorous dissenters were Jehovah’s Witnesses, who brought dozens of lawsuits in the 1930s. In 1940, the Supreme Court ruled against the Witnesses, only to reverse itself two years later when it ruled that every American has the First Amendment right to refuse to say the Pledge. Along the way, passions ran so high that thousands of Witness children were expelled from school, and there were so many attacks on Witnesses and their houses of worship that Eleanor Roosevelt made a public plea for nonviolence.
More recently, the Supreme Court ruled in 2004 against California atheist Michael Newdow, who argued that the inclusion of the words “under God” was unconstitutional. That his daughter had the right to stand quietly while her classmates recited the Pledge did not satisfy him. He claimed that it was a violation of her First Amendment rights even to have to listen. Messrs. Jones and Meyer don’t say so, but it’s a measure of the Pledge’s continuing popularity that most Americans thought Mr. Newdow was nuts.
Ms. Kirkpatrick is a former deputy editor of the Journal’s editorial page.
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