The Pledge: A History of the Pledge of Allegiance

The Pledge: A History of the Pledge of Allegiance

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by Jeffrey Owen Jones, Peter Meyer

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For more than a century, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance has been a central part of the American Experience. And perhaps because of its ubiquity, this simple flag salute has served not only as a unifying ritual but also as a lightning rod for bitter controversy.

Congress's 1954 decision to add "under God" to the Pledge has made it the focus of three U.S.


For more than a century, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance has been a central part of the American Experience. And perhaps because of its ubiquity, this simple flag salute has served not only as a unifying ritual but also as a lightning rod for bitter controversy.

Congress's 1954 decision to add "under God" to the Pledge has made it the focus of three U.S. Supreme Court cases and at least one other landmark appellate decision. The debate continues today, but along with it exists a widely held admiration and support for this simple affirmation of our shared patriotism.

As Jeffrey Owen Jones and Peter Meyer show in their illuminating history, this brief salute to the flag has had an almost magical power to galvanize people's deepest feelings and beliefs about who we are and ought to be as a nation. In that sense, the story of the Pledge of Allegiance is the story of America and the American people.

Editorial Reviews

Beverly Gage
What The Pledge…offer[s] is an enthusiast's fascination with the odd (if not quite "magical") string of events that led modern conservatives to adopt the ditty of a 19-century socialist as a 21st-century badge of honor.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The late producer, journalist, and teacher Jeffrey Jones partnered with former Life magazine news editor Peter Myer for this well-rounded view of the pledge of allegiance. Beginning with its 1892 composition by clergyman Francis Bellamy, the pledge is understood by Meyer and Jones as a product of unstable times, years shaken by Civil War, changing demographic makeup, and increasing economic disparities. Initially a prayer for "intelligent patriotism," the pledge has worked both to unite and divide Americans, and it is this capricious nature that so interests Jones and Meyer-from its original celebratory use as a flag salute at a Columbus Day commemorative hosted by Youth's Companion magazine to its position as a tool to emphasize the principle separation of church and state to its usage as a bulwark against the presumed threat of communism under the Eisenhower administration. Myers and Jones effortlessly pull from their trade, an impressive array of newspapers, magazines and other literature-sewing together a book that succeeds admirably in portraying the pledge as a living oath capable of maturing with and reflecting the attitudes of an ever-evolving nation.
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From the Publisher

“A concise and often entertaining history.” —The Wall Street Journal

“A lively, highly readable account that documents not just the beginning of the Pledge but some of the controversies it triggered.” —Tucson Citizen

“A worthwhile read for anyone interested in the evolution of the American system and American popular culture.” —NYMAS Review

“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.” —Roll Call

“Jones (who died before he finished the book) and Meyer do a thorough job tracing the Pledge's history from the germ in Bellamy's brain to the cultural icon it has become.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch

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The Pledge

A History of the Pledge of Allegiance

By Jeffrey Owen Jones, Peter Meyer

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2010 Jeffrey Owen Jones and Peter Meyer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8079-1


On a sultry summer evening in Boston in the year 1892, a thirty-seven-year-old former clergyman named Francis Bellamy sat down at his desk in the offices of a popular family magazine where he worked and began to write:

I pledge allegiance to my flag ...

Neither Bellamy nor anyone else could have imagined that the single twenty-three-word sentence that emerged would evolve into one of the most familiar of patriotic texts and, based on student recitations alone, perhaps the most often repeated piece of writing in the history of the English language. A standard ritual of childhood for most native-born citizens and a regular practice for many adults, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is so deeply embedded in American life that it is natural to believe that the text came from on high, or that it bubbled up spontaneously from the fruited plain, far back in our history. Before I heard, a few years ago, about Francis Bellamy and the writing of the Pledge, I had never stopped to think how or where it had originated. The Pledge of Allegiance had just always been there. It never occurred to me that a person had actually composed it. If I thought about the Pledge being written at all, I dimly pictured a man in a white wig with a quill pen, or a dashing figure in a ruffled shirt on the deck of a frigate, bombs bursting in air.

But no. As it turns out, the Pledge wasn't scratched on parchment in the mists of time. It came to life not that long ago, very near the beginning of the twentieth century. And the birth of the Pledge was more prosaic than heroic. It wasn't chiseled in granite or penned in blood on a battlefield. It was scribbled on scrap paper by Frank Bellamy, a guy stuck at the office on a hot summer night.

It is amusing to play historical voyeur and look back on Bellamy hunched over his desk jotting drafts on the back of an old office form. It must have seemed to him a very ordinary moment in time. There was, of course, no way for him to know that he was writing for the ages, that the words he was scribbling on deadline would spring from the lips of generations of Americans long after he was dead and gone. Never could he have conceived that in the twenty-first century multitudes of children all over the United States would begin every school day reciting his words (though somewhat altered by textual fiddling over the years). Nor could he have guessed that the flag salute he was composing — for an event that was part patriotic celebration, part promotion for the magazine that employed him — would find such a variety of uses in American life.

Today, in addition to marking the official opening of every school day for millions of students (even some homeschoolers recite it), the Pledge of Allegiance has become a ceremonial must for all occasions. Committees, councils, and legislatures — from PTAs and zoning boards to the U.S. Congress — intone the Pledge at the start of every session. Rotary, Elks, Lions, Kiwanis, Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts, American Legion, Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), Knights of Columbus, B'nai Brith, and scores of other clubs, societies, and associations open every meeting with the Pledge. It is recited at graduations and county fair openings, at groundbreaking ceremonies and monument dedications, at professional conventions, football games, and stock car races. It is spoken in a blended chorus of accents from around the world by newly sworn American citizens. In times of war and in times of economic distress, saying the Pledge can be a kind of incantation to express solidarity and to ward off evil.

Thinking back on the evening when he wrote the Pledge, Francis Bellamy said later in life that he intended to create a vehicle for expressing "intelligent patriotism" — not only love of country but, just as important, awareness of the nation's ideals. Bellamy also said that, with the Civil War still very much in living memory and waves of immigrants arriving on American shores, he intended the phrase "one nation indivisible" (as he originally wrote it) to stand as a strong affirmation of national unity.

He would surely be pleased to see that, in today's ever more disparate society, reciting the Pledge can be a unifying ritual that bridges social and cultural divides. It is one of the few practices shared by all Americans. Yet who could have suspected that this simple flag salute would, time and again over the years, be a lightning rod for bitter controversy? That controversies over reciting the Pledge would be the focus of three U.S. Supreme Court cases and at least one other landmark appellate decision?

No doubt a former clergyman like Bellamy, whose university commencement oration was titled "The Poetry of Human Brotherhood," would be dismayed to know that American elementary-school children who refused on religious grounds to recite the Pledge in school would be expelled, their families shunned and physically attacked. That during the politically supercharged days of the 1960s, in a town not far from his birthplace in western New York State, a teacher who stood in respectful silence rather than reciting the words of the Pledge would be fired and barraged with hate mail. That a candidate for president of the United States would impugn the other candidate's patriotism because as a governor he vetoed a bill compelling teachers to lead the Pledge. That, in the twenty-first century, a municipal official in Colorado who refused to stand and recite the Pledge would lose his post in a special recall election. Or that a town in Massachusetts would divide in rancor when compulsory recitation of the Pledge would be compared by Holocaust survivors to the forced loyalty oaths of Nazi Germany.

How would the politically active Bellamy have felt if he could have looked decades ahead to see that a gaggle of pressure groups, from environmentalists to antiabortion protestors, would try to add their own ideological messages to the text of the Pledge? What would have been his position had he been alive in 1954, when the U.S. Congress added "under God" to the text, a reference to the divinity which the former clergyman himself had not included? Could he possibly have imagined that the U.S. House of Representatives would one day vote to break up the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals because the court had ruled that having public school children recite the "under God" version of the Pledge violates the constitutional separation of church and state? Or that a sitting president would cite a commitment to preserving the "under God" Pledge in schools as a qualification for being named to the Supreme Court.

No one could have foreseen what the Pledge of Allegiance would become, the wrangles it would cause or the many ceremonial roles it would play, because there really had never been anything quite like it. The Pledge was an accident of history. It was something brand new, sui generis, that came to life out of a perfect coincidence of individuals and events. And nothing to match it has come along since.

What is the Pledge of Allegiance? It's a simple question, but the more I have considered it, the more challenging it is to answer. In its uses and its symbolism, as a mirror of contemporary society and historical events, the nature of the Pledge of Allegiance is rich and complex.

One of the questions people ask me most frequently about the Pledge is whether other countries have anything like it. Yes, there are popular salutes to the flag in other nations — Indonesia and Ghana among them. But nothing I have heard about anywhere else is quite like the Pledge. No salute is so deeply rooted in the national experience or so intertwined in daily life. None is so varied in its roles and as redolent with connotation.

Reciting the Pledge is a primal American experience, a constant in our lives from earliest memory. As a part of a regular routine, saying the Pledge can seem a reflexive exercise. In a larger frame, though, the Pledge is a powerful force in the national psyche. For the great majority of people born in the United States, the Pledge as a school ritual is our introduction to what it means to be an American. For many adults, an intimate link persists between the Pledge and their fundamental sense of national identity, their most fervent convictions about what the country is and ought to be.

Because its uses and associations extend so widely in contemporary America, the Pledge is pushed and pulled, squeezed and pummeled as never before. We use it as a political cudgel, an ideological bumper sticker, a vehicle of protest, a constitutional battering ram, and a judicial litmus test. Still, the Pledge lives on. In fact, it thrives. Especially since September 11, 2001, the uses of the Pledge of Allegiance have multiplied. The day after the terrorist attacks, Muslim men in beards and robes stood before cameras in Dallas, Texas, reciting the Pledge as a demonstration of their Americanness. One month after 9/11, then secretary of education Rod Paige urged American schoolchildren to recite the Pledge as an exercise in solidarity. On the third anniversary of the attacks, then secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld read the Pledge at the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 NASCAR race. And in the fall of 2004, neighbors and friends of an American executed in Iraq intoned the Pledge at a candlelight vigil in his Michigan hometown. Reported the New York Times:

The vigil took place in the early evening while it was still light in front of the Hillsdale County Courthouse on a town square framed by light poles bearing hanging planters with purple flowers. The Pledge of Allegiance was recited, candles were wedged into plastic coffee cup lids and passed through the crowd, and a local pastor ... was asked to say a few words.

Everyone, it seems, has a Pledge story: how they used to think it began "I play Joe legions"; how they one day blanked on the words; or about the schoolmate who refused to recite it. Lee Siskind, a businessman in Lowell, Massachusetts, told me he remembers saying the Pledge outside his tent each morning during a Boy Scout Jamboree at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Art Lubetz, a Pittsburgh architect, said he recalls that his Jewish grandmother, who escaped persecution in czarist Russia, complained about the Pledge: "I love this country. I don't need to pledge allegiance."

After Private James Prevetes was killed in Iraq in the fall of 2004, his first-grade teacher, Janice Hengle, called up a vision of him saying the Pledge in her classroom. "He stood perfectly straight and tall," she told a New York Times reporter. Raise the Pledge as a topic at a local Lions Club meeting, as I did not long ago, and a flood of words pours forth. Even the most taciturn have memories to share, anecdotes to report.

My own firsthand experience with the Pledge as an adult includes two particularly memorable experiences. One occurred a few years ago in Petersburg, Alaska, where I had gone to do ground work for a documentary. I remember the Alaska Airlines jetliner I had caught in Seattle descending out of a low cloud into the half-light of a northern winter morning. Houses, boat harbors, and commercial buildings spread out below along a rim of land, surrounded by muskeg and trees, mountains and water. The cliché about Alaska as the last frontier came vividly to mind.

At the little airport terminal, Ted Smith, the mayor of Petersburg, greeted me. Mayor Smith and I drove down the town's gravelly streets under a brightening midday sky. It was Rotary day, and the mayor had invited me to lunch.

In the low-slung Boys and Girls Club building where the Rotary Club meets, I joined a line of thirty or so men and women waiting for soup and sandwiches, which we ate at long folding tables. As lunch wound down, it was time for the business meeting, presided over by a woman in a Forest Service uniform. When she walked to the front of the room, everyone stood and prepared to recite the Pledge.

It was the first time I had said the Pledge in a public gathering in a long while. Not being a Rotarian, or a member of any of the many other groups that say the Pledge routinely, I was frankly surprised to find myself standing hand over heart, practicing a childhood ritual. But reciting the familiar phrases was somehow comforting. In this room where I was a total stranger far from home, I felt connected. The Pledge was something we had in common. Reciting it with the others made me part of the group.

Back home a few months afterward, my son Eli, then five years old, announced that he had led the Pledge of Allegiance in his kindergarten class that day.

"What was that like?" I asked. He jumped up from the living room floor and stood facing imaginary classmates.

"Please salute," he said, placing his hand over his heart. "Please begin." Beaming, he then recited the Pledge flawlessly.

I experienced that moment with what I can only describe as a feeling of genuine reverence. Eli's recitation was, I realized, a rite of passage. His learning the Pledge was a first step toward civic consciousness, toward awareness that he is part of a citizenry, that he has a flag that stands for a nation with ideals and principles. Eli was moving out of the toddler world toward the larger community of the body politic. He and I, father and son, were now connecting on a new level — as fellow citizens.

As anyone who has ever said the rosary or chanted a mantra knows, repeating words over and over tends to drain them of literal meaning. One morning when I was substitute teaching in a big suburban middle school, an outsized eighth-grade boy remained sprawled in his chair as the other students stood to say the Pledge. When I motioned to him to stand up, he gave me the adolescent look of long-suffering annoyance so familiar to parents and teachers. "Why do we have to say this every morning?" he groaned. "I already know the words." It was a good question. Why indeed?

The text of the Pledge reads as a promise of fidelity and a shorthand statement of national principles. In many contexts, though, the direct significance of the Pledge is clearly secondary to its symbolic, ceremonial function.

For school kids, beyond the patriotic promise and the evocation of high ideals, reciting the Pledge is a ritual of joint enterprise that says, this day is officially beginning now and we are going into it together. In the case of my son's first recitation, and in my experience in Alaska, the meaning of the words was secondary to the act of reciting them. Eli didn't understand the definition of allegiance or republic (who does?) or even of the United States of America. (He was still sorting out the basics of geography: for him, "our state" meant the entire world beyond our town.) His excitement came from standing up with his classmates, striking the ceremonial hand-over-heart pose, facing the Stars and Stripes, speaking the rhythmic text and hearing it resound around him. What happened to me in Alaska was similar. It was the feeling of unity and being at home among a group of strangers that touched me more than the ideas we were affirming.

Of course, there are many instances where the literal meaning of every word in the Pledge is important. So it was one morning in the fall of 2005 when I stopped in at the Monroe County building in downtown Rochester, New York, not far from where I live. There I found the county council chamber humming with conversations in a variety of languages. I had come to witness the monthly swearing-in of naturalized citizens in this region of the state. The information sheet I was handed said there were forty-six candidates for U.S. citizenship from thirty-one countries of the world. There were Asians, Africans, Middle Easterners, Latin Americans, and Europeans. Families and friends embraced and exchanged kisses.

The proceedings began with brief remarks from the presiding judge, who commended the participants on having worked hard to fulfill the requirements to become citizens. An official from the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Service next introduced the candidates as a group. Then they all raised their right hands and the county clerk read the oath of citizenship, a weighty text:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic ...

After the oath, a women's a capella octet, dressed in mauve blazers with pink carnations, relieved the somber tone of the proceedings. The altos began: thrum, thrum, thrum ... Then the sopranos: Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord ... I couldn't help wondering, as they sang, how many of the new citizens were Christian. Given the moment, though, and the exuberance of the octet, no one was likely to quibble.


Excerpted from The Pledge by Jeffrey Owen Jones, Peter Meyer. Copyright © 2010 Jeffrey Owen Jones and Peter Meyer. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

JEFFREY OWEN JONES worked as an editor, television and film producer, journalist, and teacher. A graduate of Williams College and Middlebury College, he received an Emmy Award for his work in New York local public television and had been published in Smithsonian magazine. He died in 2007.

PETER MEYER is a former news editor of Life magazine and the author of numerous nonfiction books, including the critically acclaimed The Yale Murder, Death of Innocence, and Dark Obsession. Meyer has also won journalism awards from the University of Missouri and the Robert Kennedy Foundation for his reporting and writing for such national publications as Harper's Magazine, Vanity Fair, New York, Life, Time, and People. He is currently Contributing Editor at Education Next magazine and the Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Jeffrey Owen Jones worked as an editor, television and film producer, journalist, and teacher. A graduate of Williams College and Middlebury College, he received an Emmy Award for his work in New York local public television and was published in Smithsonian magazine. He died in 2007.
Peter Meyer is a former News Editor of Life magazine and the author of numerous nonfiction books, including the critically acclaimed Yale Murder, Death of Innocence and Dark Obsession. Meyer has also won journalism awards from the University of Missouri and the Robert Kennedy Foundation for his reporting and writing for such national publications as Harper's, Vanity Fair, New York, Life, Time and People.

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Pledge: A History of the Pledge of Allegiance 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
AKReaderLS More than 1 year ago
This book is incredible. There are so many details and facts I either never knew or had forgotten. It's simply amazing what impact the Pledge has had on all our lives and how it all came to be. This one is a keeper!