The history of the Pledge of Allegiance is far shorter than that of our American flag—although it has gone through several revisions over the years, like our flag, and it has been at the center of the firestorms of controversy as well, again like the flag.
The creation of an oath by which citizens would swear their allegiance to their country would have been an alien concept to the men who founded America back in 1776. Such an oath would have smacked of royalism to them; the only such passage prescribed in the Constitution was a short one made by a president at his inauguration.
It's perhaps ironic that the origins of the pledge can be found in a promotion campaign for The Youth's Companion, a magazine that featured uplifting, moralistic adventure stories for children. In 1888 the Companion launched a program of "advancing patriotism" by flying Old Glory over every schoolhouse. The plan worked well—within a few years the flag was being flown over all government buildings, not just schools.
The editors of the Companion saw another opportunity as the year 1892 approached—the 400th anniversary of Columbus's "discovery of America." They organized a committee of state educators to plan a National Public School Celebration for this event, with special exercises to be planned for every school. The chairman of this committee was an ordained Baptist minister, Francis M. Bellamy. Coincidentally, Bellamy was also one of the editors of The Youth's Companion.
The committee produced a twenty-three-word pledge of loyalty that was to be a part of the exercises for the event. The oath was titled: "The Youth's Companion Flag Pledge."
On October 19, 1892, schoolchildren in Chicago gathered to hear a special proclamation by President Benjamin Harrison, then in town for the dedication of the Columbian Exposition of 1892. Then a color guard brought in the flag and the children touched their fingers to their foreheads in a military salute as they said the words:
I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the Republic for which it stands: one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Over the next few decades the saying of the pledge became an integral part of most schools' opening exercises. In 1910, New York state legislators voted to require the recitation of the pledge each school day, and other states soon followed.
One feature of the pledge that was not addressed in any law was how the salute was to be performed. Although the original pledge sayers had used a military salute—a somewhat odd gesture for elementary school children—other schools adopted their own versions. In some towns, children held their right hand across their chest, palm downward— just as people today hold their hands over their hearts. Other schools had their students extend their right hands toward the flag in what would now be considered the Nazi salute—though to be fair, the gesture was already well known as the Roman salute and it was only later that Hitler co-opted it for his own. And some schools would use an odd combination of both salutes—children would give the military salute until the word flag was said, then they would fling their arms forward as if they were shouting, "Heil!"
The first hint of controversy began in 1917, when Francis Bellamy, no longer on the staff of The Youth's Companion, began to assert that he was in fact the author of the pledge. Not so, responded the magazine in a pamphlet published later that year—it was actually James Upham, a former employee of the publisher, who had written the words. Upham, however, had died in 1905 and therefore was not available to support the magazine's claim. Amazingly, the battle continued for decades. It came to a head in 1931 when the New York Times, upon the occasion of Bellamy's death, published an obituary stating that he was the author of the pledge. Upham's relatives saw this and cried foul. The fighting only became more ugly as the years went on. Finally, in 1939, members of the United States Flag Association stated that their research proved that Bellamy was the true author.
Unfortunately, even this august organization could not lay the matter to rest—a self-appointed expert, Gridley Adams, countered that Upham had clearly dictated the words to Bellamy. He so besieged the World Almanac with letters to this effect that the publication finally cried "uncle" in 1950 and printed that Bellamy had written the pledge "at the suggestion" of Upham.
Gridley Adams had been associated with the pledge and the flag for many years prior to his entrance into the authorship debate. In 1923 he was chosen as permanent chairman of a new National Flag Code Committee, organized to settle once and for all how citizens should fly the flag.
Adams immediately proposed that the pledge become part and parcel of the Flag Code. In addition, he urged that the words my flag be dropped in favor of the words the flag of the United States. ("I didn't like a pledge that any Hottentot could subscribe to," he said.) He also sought to bring some uniformity to the salutes used during the pledge, recommending that civilians should place their right hand over their heart. His suggestions were immediately adopted as part of the Flag Code.
A year later Adams again offered a change to the wording of the pledge. He now proposed that the words of America be added after the phrase the United States. ("I thought people ought to be sure which united states they're talking about," Adams later explained.)
It wasn't until the advent of World War II that Congress finally adopted the Flag Code, which included the official words to the Pledge of Allegiance:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Another element of the debate that was to surround the pledge involved schools' requiring pupils to recite it. A Pennsylvania couple, members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, brought a federal suit against their school district because having to salute the flag contradicted the biblical book of Exodus's injunction against servitude to any graven image; therefore, they contended, requiring the pledge and the salute unjustly infringed on their freedom of religion. This suit reached the U.S. Supreme Court but was ultimately rejected. Three years later, however, the Court reversed its ruling in another case and stated that no one can be compelled to recite the pledge or even stand while others recite it.
In 1953 the pledge was once again targeted for revision. Congressman Louis C. Rabaut of Michigan had received a letter from one of his constituents recommending that the words under God be added to the pledge—just as Lincoln had used them in the Gettysburg Address. Rabaut acted quickly and introduced a resolution in the House to amend the pledge. The majority of public opinion supported this change, especially in the fervent patriotic spirit resulting from the Korean War—though there were of course a few dissenters, including the Unitarian Ministers Association and the Freethinkers of America.
Still, Rabaut's resolution sat unpassed until the following February, when the Reverend George Docherty, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, gave a special Lincoln Day sermon attended by President Dwight D. Eisenhower: "There [is] something missing in the pledge, [something that is] the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life. Indeed, apart from the mention of the phrase, 'the United States of America,' it 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…" (as printed in the Congressional Record).
Congress went on to pass the resolution and President Eisenhower signed the new version of the pledge into law on Flag Day of 1954. The pledge now read:
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.
In his enthusiasm, Congressman Rabaut went on to hire a songwriter to set the pledge to music. He also got the House to authorize printing more than three hundred thousand copies of the sheet music and arranged for the first musical rendition in 1955 by the Singing Sergeants.
Another firestorm about the pledge erupted in June of 2002. A federal appeals court ruled that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is an unconstitutional "endorsement of religion" because of the addition of the phrase "under God" by Congress in 1954. A three-member panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case to a lower court. If allowed to stand, the ruling would apply to schools in the nine states covered by the Ninth Circuit.