Over the last few weeks, I’ve typed the words “swear allegiance” more often than I would have thought possible as I write the stories of the Empress Maud (aka Matilda, Lady of the English), Isabella of Castile, and Tamar of Georgia. In each case, a king forced his nobles to swear allegiance to his daughter in order to secure her inheritance to the throne.*
After I’d typed the words several dozen times and tried to find another way to describe the same act,** I found myself thinking about the American pledge of allegiance.*** And because I only have an article due, a grant proposal to write, a post that needs to go up on Illuminate, and a book chapter that is squirming in my hands like a kitten that doesn’t want to be held, I thought this was a fine time to go find out about the pledge.
My memories of saying the pledge are firmly rooted in grade school, though I presume the practice continued through my high school years. We stood at our desks, hands pressed against our chests in some approximation of where we thought our hearts were, and chorused the words along with a disembodied voice on the PA system. At the same time, two or three of the older students helped raise the flag on the pole in front of the building–I don’t remember how students were chosen, only that it was an honor and a thrilling experience.**** There were always one or two children who were exempted from the ritual due to parental objections–which were never discussed or explained. (A lost learning opportunity, Delaware Elementary.) My memory is that they stepped into the hall. But perhaps I made that up. Maybe they sat at their desks, observers rather than participants. Or maybe there were no conscientious pledge objectors.***** (I know a couple of my Delaware classmates hang out here in the Margins. If your memories are different than mine, feel free to share them in the comments or an email.)
When I headed into Historyland to find out the story behind the pledge of allegiance I had a vague feeling that it was relatively new. Well, yes and no.
In fact, the custom began earlier than I thought, thanks to a Baptist minister turned adman named Francis Bellamy.
Bellamy was a second-generation Baptist minister who found the pulpit didn’t quite fit. In 1891 he accepted a job in the promotion department of a Boston-based family magazine, Youth’s Companion. One of his first assignments was organizing a nation-wide patriotic program for schools to coincide with the opening ceremonies of the Columbian Exposition of 1892 on the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World.****** A salute to the flag, recited by schoolchildren in unison, was intended as a key element of the ceremony.
Bellamy must have been a hustler. Thanks to Bellamy’s efforts, Congress passed a resolution endorsing the school ceremony amd President Benjamin Harrison declared Columbus Day a national holiday. He (Bellamy, not Harrison) also struggled to write the pledge that formed the basis of the one we say today. His version read “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands–one Nation indivisible–with liberty and justice for all.” (Two hours, twenty-two words. I feel his pain.)
Youth’s Companion published the text of the pledge and the salute to go with it. (Unlike today, the original salute began with the right hand over the heart and ended with something that sounds remarkably like the Nazi salute to Hitler.) The magazine also offered American flags for sale. After all, Bellamy was in the promotions department.
According to Youth’s Companion, millions of school children participated in the 1892 Columbus Day ceremony. Over the years, reciting the pledge became an accepted part of the school day across the country. Several state legislatures required public school children to recite the pledge every day. In the 1920s, the National Flag Convention dropped the “my” and added “of the United States of America” in case immigrant children were confused about which flag they were pledging allegiance to. (I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.) In the 1930s, school districts began to change the salute in response to concerns raised by parent and teacher associations, the Red Cross, and the Boy and Girl Scouts that the salute made Americans look like Nazi sympathizers.
In 1942, fifty years after Bellamy wrote it, Congress adopted the pledge as part of a national flag code, including the modern version of the salute. In 1954, Congress created the version of the pledge that I grew up with, adding the phrase “under God” as a controversial Cold War response to “godless” communism. (Don’t ask me to explain why anyone thought this would be an effective countermeasure to anything.)
I don’t remember what I felt when I recited the pledge of allegiance as a child. As an adult, it brings a lump to my throat. Will that change, now that I know it started out as a promotional campaign tied to a problematic national holiday, with historical overtones of xenophobia? Probably not. The country that I pledge allegiance to is complicated. Its history has moments of glory as well as darkness. In my opinion, the important thing is to remember the darkness as well as the glory–and refuse to repeat old mistakes.
*It only worked in the case of Tamar of Georgia–and not very well in her case, now that I think about it.
**Swear fealty also works. Though it isn’t much of a change. All suggestions welcome.
***”But I digress” is a way of life.
****I felt a similar thrill earlier this year when My Own True Love and I helped raise the flag over Fort Sumter.
*****Memory is a tricky thing.
******The exposition took place in 1893. Stuff happens.