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The Pledge at 125

The Pledge of Allegiance has undergone many changes since it was first written. What
does it mean to Americans today?
FEBRUARY 20, 2017

By Bryan Brown
They may be the first words you learn by heart:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America . . . .
The Pledge of Allegiance (see full text, below) turns 125 this year. For many Americans,
saying it is as natural as breathing. You might even think the Pledge was part of the very
foundation of America, like the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.
But it actually wasn’t written until more than a century after the United States became a
nation. At the time, few people thought the Pledge would become an enduring tradition. It
was only gradually embraced by the states, and it wasn’t formally adopted nationally until
1942. That it exists at all, historians Jeffrey Owen Jones and Peter Meyer have written, is “an
accident of history.”

Building Patriotism
It started with Francis Bellamy, who worked for a children’s magazine called Youth’s
Companion in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1892, he was asked to write a salute to the
American flag to mark the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the
Americas. His salute differs from the one we know today:
I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, indivisible,
with liberty and justice for all.
Of his salute, Bellamy later wrote that he was concerned Americans were forgetting the
sacrifices of the Civil War (1861-65) and that they were losing their sense of being
“indivisible.” He came to believe that if children said the Pledge every day, it would instill an
almost unconscious patriotism in them.
Yet scholars note another concern of late 19th-century America, then dominated by white
Protestants. Many were worried about the influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants from
Southern and Eastern Europe.
“Bellamy’s pledge was designed [in part] to ‘Americanize’ the foreigner,” says historian
Richard Ellis of Willamette University in Oregon.
The Pledge has never been only about the ideals of “liberty and justice,” Ellis says. It has
also been “an expression of an anxiety that American identity is at risk.”
That fear was in full force in 1923, when the words “my flag” were changed to “the flag of
the United States of America.” The people pushing for the change wanted to make sure that
the country’s new immigrants were leaving behind old loyalties. They had a new flag now.
Beginning in 1919, states started making it mandatory to recite the Pledge in public schools.
Students could be punished or expelled for not complying. In time, some Americans ob jected
to what they saw as forced patriotism, and they pushed back.

Photo Researchers, Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

Schoolchildren salute the U.S. flag with extended arms, in May 1942; later that year,
Congress mandated hands over hearts instead because the original salute looked eerily similar
to the one used in Nazi Germany.
‘Under God’
One group was Jehovah’s Witnesses, a small Protestant denomination. They believed
reciting the Pledge was a form of idolatry that ran contrary to their religious beliefs. When
students of that denomination got kicked out of school for refusing to say it, they sued, which
led to two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1943, the Court ruled in favor of the
Jehovah’s Witnesses, saying that no student could be forced to say the Pledge. This judgment
on freedom of expression remains the law of the land.
Then, in 1954, during the early years of the Cold War, Congress added the words “under
God” to the Pledge. Scholars say this was a way to distinguish American ideals from the
“godless Communism” of the Soviet Union, which denounced religion and persecuted those
who practiced it.
Many Americans have objected to the phrase. In 2004, the Supreme Court heard an argument
from an activist named Michael Newdow that “under God” violates the First Amendment’s
freedom from government-sponsored religion. But the Court unanimously rejected his suit on
a technicality.
Still, David Hudson, a First Amendment scholar, says that the decision was seen in part as
acknowledging a widespread acceptance of the Pledge—including “under God”—across the
country. The Court, along with most Americans, “viewed the Pledge as more of a patriotic
exercise than an advancement of religion,” he says.
But the Pledge can still serve as a lightning rod for protest. In November, a New Jersey
seventh-grader named Manny Martinez made headlines by refusing to recite it —an action
frowned upon in many communities. Manny said that the election of Donald Trump, whom he
sees as disrespectful to women and minorities, made it impossible for him to participate in
the salute to the flag.
Yet in other circumstances, the special symbolism of the Pledge is used to reaffirm America’s
qualities. When then-President Barack Obama visited a mosque in Baltimore, Maryland, last
year, Muslim men in skullcaps and women in hijabs stood to recite it.
“You’re part of America too,” Obama told them.
One hundred twenty-five years after its birth, the Pledge endures. “No salute is so deeply
rooted in the national experience or intertwined in daily life,” write Jones and Meyer in their
book, The Pledge. For many people of the United States, they write, its words capture a
“fundamental sense of national identity”—what it means to be American.