With Liberty And Justice For All: A Brief History of the Pledge of Allegiance

Date: 1 May 2002 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

With Liberty And Justice For All: A Brief History of the Pledge of Allegiance
By David Morris
May 1, 2002

Originally Published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune

Twenty-six states now require the pledge of allegiance in public schools. Some require schools to reflect on the history and meaning of that pledge. Reflection would be instructive. The story of the pledge reveals the fears and strengths of this nation.

At the end of the 19th century millions of immigrants poured into a country beset with social unrest. Many believed we needed some symbol to tie the nation’s peoples together. The first widely used pledge of allegiance was written by a Colonel Balch of New York. His was a simple pledge of fealty and devotion. “I give my heart and my hand to my country–one country, one language, one flag”.

In 1892 Francis Bellamy, an ordained Baptist minister who had been booted out of his Boston church because of his fiery socialist sermons composed a pledge that expressed loyalty not only to a nation but to an idea: “liberty and justice for all”.

“I pledge Allegiance to my Flag, the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” (the word “to” was added before “the Republic” by Bellamy a few days after its first publication in Youth’s Companion, September 8, 1892.”)

According to John W. Baer author of The Pledge of Allegiance: A Centennial History, 1892-1992, Bellamy wanted to add the word “equality” to the Pledge but was “mindful of the social climate regarding women and minorities”.

In 1892 President Benjamin Harrison urged all schools to adopt the Pledge. Many did.

After World War I, millions of immigrants who had been unable to travel to the U.S. during the conflict again landed on our shores. This sparked a xenophobic reaction which included, for the first time sharp limits on immigration. Organizations like the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution lobbied to change the phrase “my flag” to “the flag of the United States of America”. “They were afraid that some of these little kids with anarchist or Communist parents, when they said ‘My flag” would be thinking of the black flag of anarchy or the red flag of communism”, observed Whitney Smith, director of the Flag Research Center in Winchester Massachusetts.

In 1940, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that school boards could compel students to recite the pledge. “National unity is the basis of national security. The flag is a symbol of our national unity”, wrote Justice Felix Frankfurter.

Three years later, the Court reversed itself, 6-3. Why? Perhaps the Court realized that at the height of a war against totalitarian regimes, a central feature of which was a slavish devotion to national symbols, compelling devotion to our flag was inappropriate and a contradiction of the very spirit of the pledge: “with liberty and justice for all”.

During that war the nation made other changes. The stiff-armed, arms-out flag salute fell out of favor because of its similarity to the Nazi salute. In 1942, to prevent the cheapening of the flag, the American Flag Code prohibited its use in advertising or on any disposable item.

A decade later, the pledge was altered once more. In 1953 the Knights of Columbus launched a massive letter-writing campaign to add the words “under God”. Then on February 7, 1954 the Reverend George M. Docherty, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C. delivered a sermon on the subject. With President Eisenhower sitting in the front pew the Reverend declared, “Apart from the mention of the phrase ‘the United States of America” it could be the pledge of any republic. I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow. Russia is also a republic that claims to have overthrown the tyranny of kingship. Russia also claims to be indivisible.”

Three days later a bill was introduced in Congress to add the words “under God”. Baer recalls that “Congressmen said Communists would feel very uncomfortable saying the pledge, because they were atheists”. On Flag Day, June 14th Eisenhower signed the bill into law.

Bellamy’s 22 word pledge had now grown to 31 words. Yet six of his original words still best express its central sentiment. ” With liberty and justice for all”.

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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.