Hand over Heart

The true history of the Pledge of Allegiance is far more interesting and complex than the version peddled by our politicians. It is also darker and more unsettling. To encounter the history of the Pledge is to confront American history, warts and all. The words of the Pledge have inspired millions, but they have also been used to coerce and intimidate, to compel conformity, and to silence dissent. Their daily recitations in schools and legislatures across the nation tells us as much about our anxieties as a nation as they do about our highest ideals.

–Richard J. Ellis, To the Flag

The American Pledge of Allegiance was first recited on this day in 1892, by students observing the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World. Ellis’s account of “The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance” begins in 2002, when a federal judge caused a national uproar by ruling that the “under God” clause of the Pledge was a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. Ellis points out that, contrary to those politicians and patriots who “spoke of the Pledge as if it were an immutable part of an unchanging tradition that dated back to the nation’s founding,” the “under God” clause was not added until 1954.

Ellis concedes, however, that the original Pledge was indeed in the “under God” spirit, and then some. Pledge composer Francis Bellamy was a very devout “Christian Socialist,” and when he spoke on the day of the inaugural recitation he expressed faith “in the underlying principles of Americanism and in God’s destiny for the Republic,” which was “built purely of Anglo-Saxon stuff”:

Those mighty men of the Lord that settled Massachusetts, the sturdy Dutchmen of New York, the clean Quakers of Pennsylvania, the cavalier stock that established itself on the James — these were the true makers of America.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.