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A Long-Term Role for a Temporary Allegiance

Each morning, students across the United States stand, place their right hand over their heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

While this 31-word routine may not hold much significance for the students, the Pledge of Allegiance has a history of political controversy. In fact, it was never intended to be a long-term tradition.

In their new book, ‘The Pledge: A History of the Pledge of Allegiance,’ Jeffrey Owen Jones and Peter Meyer take readers back to the beginning of the patriotic oath and show how it stirred up national pride and questions about freedom of speech.

In 1892, James B. Upham, an editor of the popular magazine Youth’s Companion, sought to instill some patriotic fervor in the nation’s students. The magazine had already embarked on an extensive campaign to put an American flag above every school in the country, but Upham wanted a grand, national celebration to bring that patriotism to life. He settled on Columbus Day, which was not yet a national holiday, and, through the magazine, encouraged schools all over the country to host patriotic festivities for the day. He saw the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America as a perfect opportunity to promote national unity and pride.

He enlisted the help of his co-worker, the Rev. Francis Bellamy, to write a salute to the flag to be used as part of the celebrations.

Bellamy’s original version of the pledge was much shorter than the one recited today. It read, ‘I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’

The 1892 Columbus Day celebrations were wildly successful, and led to the day being recognized as a federal holiday. Bellamy’s pledge was never intended for use beyond that day. Nevertheless, interest in reverence toward the flag had been generated and use of the pledge stuck even as it was changed and challenged over time.

Because huge numbers of immigrants were pouring into the country, the pledge was changed from ‘my flag’ to ‘the flag of the United States of America’ out of fear that immigrants would use the pledge to pay tribute to their former country’s flag.

By the turn of the century, schools began saluting the flag daily and states eventually passed laws mandating it. This is where the problems began, particularly among nonviolent religious groups that felt pledging allegiance to the flag meant a support of military action. Students who refused to recite the pledge with their classmates on religious grounds were frequently expelled and considered unpatriotic.

In the 1930s, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were the first to successfully argue that mandatory recitation of the pledge was a violation of their right to free speech. To the Witnesses, having their children expelled from school for not performing the flag salute was far too similar to Nazi Germany’s practice of putting Witnesses in concentration camps when they refused to salute Hitler.

In 1954, Cold War fears of anti-religion communists led to the addition of the phrase ‘under God’ to the pledge. Within three years, a court case asking that it be removed was introduced in New York, but the court refused. The most recent pledge-related case came before the Supreme Court in 2004, when atheist Michael A. Newdow objected to his daughter being forced to acknowledge or hear reference to God in a public school. He argued that not having to say the pledge wasn’t enough ‘ just having to be in the room while it was recited was a violation of first amendment rights. Ultimately, Newdow lost and ‘under God’ remains.

The story of the pledge is a part of American history that is often overlooked. Thanks to Jones and Meyer, that story is now told.

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