American Voice 2004: What is the background of the Pledge of Allegiance?

Date: 1 Jun 2004 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Q. The Supreme Court has allowed the words “under God” to continue to be included in the Pledge of Allegiance. Could you give me some background on the history of the Pledge itself? I understand the wording has changed several times. Also, do any other countries require students to pledge allegiance to their flag?


The Pledge of Allegiance has a fascinating and instructive history.

In the late 19th century millions of immigrants flooded onto our shores, to a country already suffering from widespread social unrest. Many believed we needed some unifying symbol that could tie together our increasingly polyglot and multicultural nation.

Attention focused on the flag, an especially potent symbol given the then still-fresh memory of a catastrophic Civil War in which opposing armies fought under different flags.

In 1885, B.J. Cigrand, a schoolteacher, arranged for the pupils in the Fredonia, Wisconsin Public School to observe June 14 (the 108th anniversary of the official adoption of The Stars and Stripes by the Continental Congress) as ‘Flag Birthday’. In numerous articles and public addresses over the following years, Cigrand continued to advocate the observance of June 14 as ‘Flag Birthday’, or ‘Flag Day’.[1]

On June 14, 1889, George Balch, a kindergarten teacher in New York City, celebrated Flag Birthday in his classroom by introducing the first verbal salute to the flag. 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.” The words were accompanied by a ritualistic physical salute. Students touched first their foreheads, then their hearts and then recited the pledge with a right arm stretched out and palms down in the direction of the flag. When they completed the salute they chanted, “One County! One Language! One Flag!”

In 1888, Youth’s Companion, the leading family magazine of the day with a whopping circulation of 500,000, began a campaign to sell American flags to public schools. By 1892, it had sold flags to 26,000 schools.

In 1891 Daniel Ford, co-owner of the Youth’s Companion, hired Francis Bellamy as his assistant. In one of the ironies of history, Bellamy, the writer of the Pledge of Allegiance, was an outspoken critic of capitalism and advocate of socialism. He was a Baptist minister who had been pressured to leave his Boston church because of sermons such as “Jesus the Socialist” and “the Socialism of the Primitive Church”. Ford was a supportive member of Bellamy’s congregation.

In 1892, Bellamy was also chairman of a committee of state superintendents of education in the National Education Association. In that capacity, he prepared the program for the public schools’ 400th anniversary celebration of Columbus Day planned for that October.

By June 1892, Bellamy and James Upham, Ford’s nephew and co-owner of the Youth’s Companion, had persuaded Congress and President Benjamin Harrison to issue a proclamation making the public school flag ceremony that year the center of the national Columbus Day celebrations.

In August 1892, Bellamy wrote the Pledge. The original wording was, “I pledge allegiance to my flag and to[2] the Republic for which it stands—one nation indivisible—with liberty and justice for all.”

The ceremony’s official program detailed how the pledge was to be recited. “The pupils in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Anther signal is given; every pupil gives the flag the military salute—right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it. Standing thus, all repeat together” the Pledge. “At the words “to my Flag’ the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the Flag and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.”

Copying Balch, Bellamy had students end the pledge by proclaiming, “One Country! One Language! One Flag!”

In his comprehensive history of the Pledge[3], John Baer offers Bellamy’s own account of the thoughts that guided him in choosing the words. “The true reason for allegiance to the Flag is the “republic for which it stands’…And what does the vast thing, the Republic mean? It is the concise political word for the Nation—the one Nation which the Civil War was fought to prove. To make that One Nation idea clear, we must specify that it is indivisible…And its future? Just here rose the temptation of the historic slogan of the French Revolution, which meant so much to Jefferson and his friends, “Liberty, equality, fraternity’. No, that would be too fanciful, too many thousands of years off in realization. But we as a nation do stand square on the doctrine of liberty and justice for all…”

As Baer notes, Bellamy decided to delete the word “equality” from the first draft because he was “mindful of the social climate regarding women and minorities”.

President Benjamin Harrison declared October 21st, the original Columbus Day, a national holiday, designated schools as a main celebration site and urged all schools to adopt the Pledge. Many did. An estimated 10 million children recited the Pledge in 1892.

After World War I, the words of the Pledge were significantly altered for the first time. Once again the spur was a new wave of immigration. Tens of millions of people unable to migrate to the U.S during the conflict came to this country with the end of the War. This sparked a reaction that included, for the first time, sharp limits on immigration.

Organizations like the American Legion led a nationwide fight to promote a curriculum that emphasized “Americanism” in our public schools. A part of this was a daily salute to the flag. The Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution spearheaded a successful effort to change the phrase “my flag” to “the flag of the United States of America”. As Whitney Smith, director of the Flag Research Center in Winchester, Massachusetts observes, “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.”

The coming of World War II brought more changes to the Pledge and the first Constitutional challenges to it on religious grounds. In 1940, a Pennsylvania public school expelled two students, William and Lillian Gobitis, for refusing to salute the American flag and recite the Pledge. The children were Jehovah’s Witnesses and they considered saluting a flag to be a religiously prohibited form of idolatry. The U.S. Supreme Court, ruled 8-1 that the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment did not protect the children from having to recite the pledge.[4] “National unity is the basis of national security. The flag is a symbol of our national unity,” wrote Justice Felix Frankfurter.

But the war against fascism and Nazism caused some to reflect on the physical aspects of the salute and the mandatory nature of the pledge. Leaders of all political parties became uncomfortable with the disturbing similarity of the salute to the official Nazi salute. In 1942 Congress officially recognized the Pledge and changed the salute so that instead of an outstretched arm with palms up one placed one’s hand over one’s heart.[5]

In 1943 the Supreme Court, by a 6-3 vote, overturned its 1940 decision. The circumstances were exactly the same circumstances as in the Gobitis case. Writes law professor Richard Primus, “The reversal was largely driven by the Court’s desire to distinguish America from wartime Germany. Laws compelling a salute to the national flag called for conformity of belief and action, which by 1943 was closely associated with the Nazi enemy.”[6] Schools were no longer able to compel students to salute the flag although they could continue to ask them to do so on a voluntary basis.[7]

Voicing these concerns, Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote, “Struggles to coerce uniformity of sentiment in support of some end thought essential to their time and country have been waged by many good as well as evil men…Ultimate futility of such attempts to compel coherence is the lesson of every effort from the Roman drive to stamp out Christianity as a disturber of its pagan unity, the Inquisition, as a means to religious and dynastic unity, the Siberian exile as a means to Russian unity, down to the fast failing efforts of our present totalitarian enemies. Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters.”

A decade later, the pledge was altered once more. This time the change was inspired by fears of communism.

On Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12, 1948, at a meeting of the Illinois Society of the Sons of the American Revolution(SAR), chaplain Louis A. Bowman added the words, “under God” to the Pledge.[8] In 1952 a SAR member wrote to his former employer, William R. Hearst Jr. about the new change. The Hearst Newspapers promptly initiated a campaign to urge Congress to add the words to the official pledge. In 1953, the Knights of Columbus launched a massive letter writing campaign to the same objective.

On February 7, 1954 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 little 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”. “Congressmen said Communists would feel very uncomfortable saying the pledge, because they were atheists,” Baer observes. Francis Bellamy’s son, David sent a letter to Congress maintaining that his father would have opposed this addition. Francis Bellamy’s granddaughter and great granddaughter issued similar statements.

On Flag Day, June 14, 1954 Eisenhower signed the bill into law.[9]

Bellamy’s original pledge of 22 words had now grown to 31 words.

The Pledge has continued to generate significant political controversy. In the 1988 presidential election George H.W. Bush, with some political success, criticized Governor Michael Dukakis for the latter’s unsuccessful veto of a Massachusetts bill fining teachers $5 each day they did not order the Pledge recited in their classrooms.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, many states and local school districts reinstated the daily Pledge. As of 2004, at least 27 states have done so.

On June 26, 2002, a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the phrase “under God” violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.[10]

In the heat of the 2002 campaign, the 2-1 ruling sparked a vigorous and virtually unanimous Congressional reaction. The Senate voted 99-0 and the House voted 416-3 to reaffirm the words “under God” in the Pledge.

This year, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit Court ruling on a technicality by ruling that Michael Newdow, the man who brought suit on behalf of his daughter, lacked standing to sue because the child’s mother, who opposed the suit, has “what amounts to a tie-breaking vote” on issues related to the child’s education.[11]

The decision was issued on Flag Day, June 14, 2004.

On September 23, 2004 the House passed the Pledge Protection Act by a vote of 247 to 173. (Click here to see a graph of the vote, by party.) The Act would prohibit the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, from hearing or deciding any question pertaining to the interpretation of the Pledge, its validity under the Constitution, or its recitation.[12] It is doubtful the bill would survive a challenge. The federal judicial branch would find it difficult to support legislation that limits the kinds of issues it can examine.

As Walter Cronkite used to say in signing off on his news show, “And that’s the way it is.”

As to the question of whether any other democratic country today requires students to pledge allegiance to their flag, I’ve not been able to find one. Barbados has a national pledge that includes allegiance to “my country Barbados and to my flag,” but it is not a routine part of the school day.[13] In a recent interview with the New York Times, former Independent Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, was asked this very question. Starr represented the mother of the girl whose father wanted the Supreme Court to strike the words “under God” from the Pledge. When asked, “Do any other countries have a pledge of allegiance to their flags?” Starr answered, “Not to my knowledge.”[14]


[1] Inspired by three decades of state and local celebrations, Flag Day – the anniversary of the Flag Resolution of 1777 – was officially established by the Proclamation of President Woodrow Wilson on May 30th, 1916. It was not until August 3rd, 1949, that President Truman signed an Act of Congress designating June 14th of each year as National Flag Day.

[2] The word “to” was added in October 1892.

[3] John W. Baer, The Pledge of Allegiance: A Centennial History. 1892-1992

[5] Today, the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance is set in the US Code, at 36 USC 172. “The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” should be rendered by standing at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. When not in uniform men should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should remain silent, face the flag, and render the military salute.” The 1942 American Flag Code offered detailed instructions for the care and use of the flag. This included official disapproval of its use in advertising or on any disposable item, including clothing.

[6] Richard Primus, “A brooding omnipresence: Totalitarianism in postwar constitutional thought,” Yale Law Journal. November 1996.

[8] In 1948, Congress passed legislation requiring all federal justices and judges to swear an oath concluding with “So help me God.”

[9] The phrase “In God We Trust was first placed on coins by the U.S. Treasury in 1864 and first used on the bronze two-cent piece issued from 1864 to 1873. In 1908, Congress passed a bill that ensured that the phrase would be on all Gold and Silver coins. In 1955, Public Law 140 mandated the use of “In God We Trust” on all national currency. The following year, Congress replaced the nation’s original motto, “E Pluribus Unum” (“Out of Many, One”) with “In God We Trust.” “E Pluribus Unum” still appears on the Presidential Seal and on some paper currency.

[10] Elk Grove Unified School District vs. Michael Newdow, (02-1624) 328 F.3d 466(2002). The Elk Grove School District and the United States petitioned for rehearing of the case by the three-judge panel and by the full Ninth Circuit. On February 28, 2003, the court announced that neither the panel nor the full Ninth Circuit would rehear the case. However, it amended its earlier ruling. The amended opinion affirmed the earlier ruling that the school district’s policy of teacher-led recitation of the Pledge with the inclusion of the words “under God” was unconstitutional, but it pulled back from its earlier conclusion that the 1954 Act adding the words “under God” to the Pledge was unconstitutional. The ruling was subsequently stayed, allowing schools in Western states to continue public recitations of the Pledge until the Supreme Court ruled on the case.

[11] Elk Grove Unified School District v. Michael Newdow. Three justices, William Rehnquist, Sandra Day O’Connor and Clarence Thomas, concurred in the judgment reversing the Ninth Circuit. They did so, however, on the grounds that Newdow did have standing to sue but that a teacher-led recitation of the Pledge did not violate the First Amendment. A fourth Justice, Antonin Scalia, recused himself from the decision. Mr. Newdow had asked him to do so because the Justice had spoken critically of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling at a Religious Freedom Day observance in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in January 2003.

[12] H.R. 2028. The Appellate Court of the District of Columbia and the D.C. Court of Appeals are exempted.

[13] Barbados chose their national pledge through a competition in 1973. The winner, Mr. Lester Vaughn, was a former teacher who studied in the Unites States in the 1950s. Barbados Government Information Service.

[14] Deborah Solomon, “Questions for Kenneth Starr,” New York Times. April 18, 2004.


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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.