“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
More than a century ago, a minister named Francis Bellamy wrote this pledge for a popular magazine to honor the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World. His pledge was published on September 8, 1892 in The Youth’s Companion and was put into public practice around the country the next month when millions of children recited it in school in honor of Columbus Day. Interestingly, Bellamy intended for his pledge to serve as a statement of national allegiance for any country. Also fascinating is that the 1892 Pledge of Allegiance was originally meant to unite the citizens of the United States who had been engaged in the Civil War only 30 years before.
That the Pledge of Allegiance was once meant to unify the American public is particularly ironic in the present day as the Pledge has become a symbol of conflicting opinions within the country. Some argue that saying the Pledge in schools goes against the American principle concerning freedom of belief, while others argue that saying the Pledge is an important gesture of respect for the country. Additionally, since the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge in 1954, public opinion has been divided over whether this religious reference clashes with the American principle of separation of church and state. In order to form an opinion on these issues and the role of the Pledge that students across America say every day, it is revealing to look further into the history of our country’s statement of national allegiance.
After Bellamy’s Pledge was recited nationally on Columbus Day in 1892, it became a popular saying at schools, public events, and even Congress. Since its introduction, however, the Pledge has been revised in numerous ways, often for political reasons. In 1923, for example, the National Flag Conference changed the phrase “my flag” to “the Flag of the United States” in order to make certain that American immigrants would be pledging allegiance to their new country rather than their former nations.
Perhaps the most controversial revision to the Pledge was made in 1954 when Congress added “under God” to the Pledge. This revision was prompted by the urging of various Americans, including those in the Catholic-affiliated group, Knights of Columbus. Behind the decision to reference religion in the Pledge was the desire to reject the atheist communist movement in Russia at the time. To justify his approval of this revision, contemporary President Dwight D. Eisenhower stated: “In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”
Over the years, several cases have been taken to state and federal court concerning the use and wording of the Pledge of Allegiance. In the 1943 ruling, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Supreme Court established that it is a breach of the first and fourteenth amendments to compel individuals to say the Pledge. In 1998, Florida man Michael Newdow sued his local school board for the reference made to religion in the federally accepted Pledge, and continued to fight for a removal of the “under God” phrase until his case reached the federal Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals in 2010. However, at this point, the court ruled that the Pledge does not explicitly say that the US government itself supports monotheistic religion. In 2014, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts affirmed that the Pledge does not conflict with separation of church and state, arguing that it does not undermine the rights of atheists because the phrase “under God” represents national loyalty rather than religious endorsement.
Though some Americans have argued against modern use of the Pledge of Allegiance, judicial rulings have established a firm place for it in schools and other public places. By law, no individual is required to say the Pledge. However, is there social backlash for those who refuse to say it? Millions of American citizens recite the updated version of Bellamy’s 1892 Pledge every day, perhaps without truly reflecting on why it was written and the agendas of those who have altered it. In a time where there is so much division in the country and a resurgence of nationalistic fervor in some political groups, it is important to question and analyze the role of long-established national customs in the modern world.
CNN Library. “Pledge of Allegiance Fast Facts.” CNN, Cable News Network, 24 Apr. 2017, www.cnn.com/2013/09/04/us/pledge-of-allegiance-fast-facts/index.html.
Greene, Bob. “The peculiar history of the Pledge of Allegiance.” CNN, Cable News Network, 23 Dec. 2013, www.cnn.com/2013/12/22/opinion/greene-pledge-of-allegiance-salute/index.html.
Independence Hall Association. “The Pledge of Allegiance.” Ushistory.org, Independence Hall Association, 4 July 1995, www.ushistory.org/documents/pledge.htm.
Jones, Jeffrey Owen. “The Man Who Wrote the Pledge of Allegiance.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Nov. 2003, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-man-who-wrote-the-pledge-of-allegiance-93907224/.