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The Thirty-One Words

For many Americans, the Pledge of Allegiance is the quintessential childhood reflex. It is the ritual that began each school day, simultaneously unthinking and sacred, like all liturgies. Most schoolchildren stand up and place hand over heart without a second thought. Surely the Pledge is an indisputable Ur-text scratched out on the back of some Founding Father’s dinner napkin. Or more likely, the pious architects of democracy found it in their Bibles, right after the part where Jesus denounces Obamacare.

The Pledge is the most recent in a long line of books which remind us that our kneejerk assumptions about those familiar thirty-one words are not only wrong, but perilous. This retelling of the Pledge’s origins and controversies offers no historical revelations or deep analysis, but it is highly readable narrative that can take the reader in a single sitting through remarkable episodes in the life of a vow that is “perhaps the most often repeated piece of writing in the history of the English language.” The story is by turns not only political, but mercenary, xenophobic, and downright gruesome.

We owe our schoolhouse rite and loyalty oath to a displaced Baptist minister named Francis Bellamy. Pressured to leave his Boston church because his progressive Social Gospel sermons did not suit his robber-baron congregants, Bellamy found work in 1891 at a long-forgotten children’s magazine called Youth’s Companion, which Jones and Meyer call “the Life magazine of its day.” The editors employed Bellamy to promote a national celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World planned for 1892—a holiday which they believed would instill patriotism in millions of schoolchildren and boost sales in their ongoing “Flag Over the Schoolhouse” promotional program.

To turn-of-the-century progressives, Columbus’s journey was a “protest against ignorance,” a rebellion against superstitious Europeans’ maps of a flat world. The immigrants swarming through the gates of Ellis Island—which opened the same year—arrived blinkered by medieval worldviews that might retard America’s progress if they failed to learn New World values. Bellamy, for his part, shuddered at the thought of a “melting pot” in which Old World ethnicities might taint Anglo-Saxon American stock. “The people must guard, more jealously even than their liberties, the quality of their blood,” he later wrote. When he sat down to draft the flag salute that would crown the Columbus Day celebrations, he wrote partly for native-born Americans (who needed a reminder that their country was “one nation, indivisible” only thanks to their forefathers’ sacrifice in the Civil War), but also for immigrant children badly in need of “liberty, justice,” and a creedal deep-cleaning.

Bellamy was a masterful promoter, wrangling a meeting with President Harrison and roaming the halls of Congress until his pleadings on behalf of patriotism and citizenship produced a joint resolution to declare Columbus Day a national holiday “with suitable exercises in the schools.” His pledge appeared in the September 8, 1892 issue of the Companion in its shorter original form: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Bellamy’s Columbus Day promotion was a commercial success, capitalizing on the patriotic mania that swept America in those years: standing when the flag passed became customary during the Spanish-American War in 1898, and by 1900 nineteen states required schools to fly the flag. Although his Pledge emerged as the preferred salute out of dozens of contenders, he had little control over its fate (indeed, he battled challenges to his authorship until his death in 1931). As state and local laws requiring recitation of the Pledge multiplied in the 1920s and 1930s, the American Legion and other patriotic groups urged children to pledge allegiance not to “my flag,” but to “the flag of the United States of America,” lest any Polish or Italian child imagine his own national standard in place of Old Glory. The change pained Bellamy, whose authorial ego apparently prevailed over his nativism.

Local officials and higher courts dismissed early challenges to the compulsory Pledge. In 1918, when a Mennonite father appealed the twenty-five-day jail sentence he had received for instructing his daughter not to recite the Pledge out of deference to his church’s opposition to violence and oath-taking—which led her teacher to send her home as a truant—the judge rejected the appeal. There was nothing religious about the Pledge, said the judge, who warned that “Such conduct on the part of our citizens … is the forerunner of disloyalty and treason.” In 1940, Justice Felix Frankfurter led the way in the Supreme Court’s overturning of a lower court’s decision that patriotism might indeed violate religious belief. “Conscientious scruples have not, in the course of the long struggle for religious toleration, relieved the individual from obedience to a general law,” wrote Frankfurter, an immigrant who had migrated from Austria at age twelve, a co-founder of the ACLU and non-practicing Jew who presumably knew something about religious intolerance.

Violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses (whose rejection of the Pledge as a form of political involvement elicited the Supreme Court decision) erupted in hundreds of towns across the nation. In Wyoming, a mob tarred and feathered a Witness. Public officials permitted beatings in Texas and Illinois; in Nebraska, self-appointed patriots castrated another. Horrified by the bloodshed, three justices recanted their decisions, but it was not until 1943 that West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette finally protected conscientious objectors from saying the Pledge. The Court reacted in part to embarrassing comparisons between the Pledge and the patriotism of the Nazis, who were also inclined to persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses. Only a year before, Franklin Roosevelt had encouraged Americans to replace the original salute—an outstretched arm that looked uncomfortably like a counterpart to “Sieg Heil!”—with the now familiar hand over heart.

Dwight Eisenhower, who was raised a Jehovah’s Witness but gave up that faith for the Army and, later on, Presbyterianism, believed strongly in the unifying power of the oath that his erstwhile co-believers called a tool of Satan. In one Sunday sermon, his new minister preached that the current Pledge “could be the Pledge of any Republic. In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar Pledge to their hammer and sickle flag in Moscow with equal solemnity.” Abraham Lincoln himself had declared America “one nation UNDER GOD.” Eisenhower had heard enough. He signed those two additional words into law on Flag Day, June 14, 1954.

After September 11, 2001, more schools than ever before began requiring recitation of the Pledge. Yet in 2002, an atheist attorney and emergency room doctor named Michael Newdow sued his daughter’s California school district for forcing her to listen to the Pledge each morning (she was excused from reciting it herself). The case rose to the Supreme Court, where Newdow lost on a technicality, permitting the Court to dodge the heart of the matter.

Jones and Meyers dismiss the question of whether other countries have a civic oath analogous to America’s Pledge. “No salute is so deeply rooted in the national experience or so intertwined in daily life,” they write. This may be so, though countries ranging from India and Singapore to Guyana and Nigeria all have national pledges, and in some cases their schoolchildren recite the pledge every day. Not coincidentally, these countries are states with distinct—and fraught—moments of modern independence. Since gaining sovereignty, all have faced the continuing task of welding age-old foes into a nation.

Moreover, in all cases—and, if we take the authors at their word, in the American case most of all—these pledges were born out of national and ethnic insecurity, and the fear that if citizens are not continually prodded to proclaim their unity, they might act on their differences. Democratic citizenship is always a flammable mixture of freedom and coercion.

Jones and Meyers seem to favor the compulsory Pledge: “We gain power in a group which is the seat of nationalism, a country coming together,” they observe, somewhat obscurely, toward the end of the book. “Aren’t we stronger for it as a nation?” This conclusion brushes aside the most striking themes in the history they tell: the Pledge perennially pits America’s best virtues against its ugliest habits, and too often becomes the totem of a tribe, an emblem of self-worship rather than unity. It is hardly an accident that Tea Party activists have begun picking fights over the Pledge wherever they can, despite the continuing popularity of the Pledge on both ends of the political spectrum. So many of the flashpoints in today’s political debates—universal healthcare, immigration policy, even Obama’s birthplace—are, like the story of the Pledge, grounded in the question of who counts as an American citizen, and the problem not only of a citizen’s rights, but of his duties.

Molly Worthen is a freelance writer and doctoral student in religious history at Yale.