Today’s conservatives often describe themselves as strict constructionists, seeking the “original meaning” of the nation’s founding texts. In the case of the Pledge of Allegiance, a much fetishized if not legally binding document, this approach is unlikely to yield the desired political result. As Jeffrey Owen Jones and Peter Meyer note, the original author of the pledge was a former Christian Socialist minister who hoped to redeem the United States from its class and ethnic antagonisms. Interpretations of its meaning have been growing more conservative, not more liberal, ever since.
A History of the Pledge of Allegiance
By Jeffrey Owen Jones and Peter Meyer
214 pp. Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. $23.99
The author in question was Francis Bellamy, cousin to the novelist Edward Bellamy, whose “Looking Backward” offered the 19th century’s most popular vision of a future welfare-state utopia. In 1892, after abandoning the ministry, Francis was working at The Youth’s Companion, a mass-market magazine aimed at schoolchildren. For promotional purposes, the magazine planned a national youth pageant to mark the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s American landfall. Bellamy was assigned to rally the necessary political support and, at the last minute, to compose a few words appropriate to the occasion. He came up with a statement of what he later called “intelligent patriotism,” designed to counteract some of the nation’s most divisive and reactionary impulses.
His original salute to the flag was just 23 words: “I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the republic for which it stands — one nation indivisible — with liberty and justice for all.” Even so, it contained a subtle political message. Amid the heightened class conflict of the Gilded Age, the phrase “liberty and justice for all” was an idealist’s demand as well as a patriotic affirmation. So, too, was the idea of “one nation indivisible.” Just a generation removed from the Civil War, divided over the new immigrants pouring in from Eastern and Southern Europe, Americans of the era could not take their country’s stability for granted. Bellamy hoped his pledge would bind them together in a celebration of the nation’s traditions — and sell a few magazines along the way.
As Jones and Meyer note, Bellamy himself eventually backed away from his early flirtation with radicalism, emerging by World War I as an advocate of immigration restriction and stringent countersubversion. Much of the nation followed a similar path. In the 1920s, patriotic groups like the American Legion campaigned to change the words “my flag” to “the flag of the United States of America,” anxious that immigrant children might secretly be pledging to the flags of their original homelands. Three decades later, Congress added the words “under God” to distinguish American patriotism from “godless Communism,” thus condemning Bellamy’s high-minded call for national unity to decades of court challenges and contention.
As the pledge grew more restrictive, it also became increasingly mandatory. Today, at least 42 states feature some sort of recitation law, usually aimed at public school children. Politicians on both sides of the aisle pay homage to the pledge as an essential and edifying patriotic rite, advertising their willingness to place hand over heart. (Strict constructionists should note that the original pledge was accompanied by a right-side straight-arm salute, a gesture that mysteriously began to lose popularity in the 1930s.)
Jones and Meyer make a good case that Bellamy’s original pledge was more elegant and rhythmic than today’s clause-laden version. They are less effective in explaining how the former “Youth’s Companion Pledge of Allegiance” evolved from a vaguely progressive one-off promotional spot into a mandatory childhood rite of passage and a political weapon. “The Pledge” often relies on exclamation and enthusiasm in lieu of analysis. (“Only in America!” appears as free-standing commentary.) As a result, the book reads more like an amateur hobbyist’s guide to pledge-related happenings than a fully realized history of American patriotism and national identity.
What “The Pledge” does offer 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.
Beverly Gage, a history professor at Yale, is writing a biography of J. Edgar Hoover.