The Pledge of Allegiance
The pledge began as an intensive communing with...our national history, from the Declaration of Independence onwards; with the makings of the Constitution...with the meaning of the Civil War; with the aspirations of the people...
In 1892, Francis Bellamy wrote and published the first Pledge of Allegiance in his magazine, Youth’s Companion. It was publicly recited for the first time at the first Columbus Day celebration, held that year.1 Bellamy’s first pledge read: “I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the Republic for which its stands; one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”2 The pledge soon became popular and was adopted by schools across the nation.
By the time of the Second World War, many states had made the daily recitation of the pledge mandatory for teachers and students. This led to a controversy about the pledge. In 1940, with the threat of war hanging over the nation, a case went to the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the mandatory pledge law in West Virginia. There, several students refused to recite the pledge on religious grounds. Their parents claimed the law violated the Constitution. The court upheld the law, finding that the state’s goal to instill national unity and patriotism should not be overruled by the judiciary unless it significantly affected religious rights.3
Three years later, the disputed West Virginia flag salute law came again before the court. This time the court held that no person should be compelled to state beliefs which violated personal conscience or conviction and that while the state could require the pledge, a pupil could not be punished for refusing to say it.4
In the 1950s with America embroiled in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, a change was made to the pledge. Wishing to emphasize the philosophical differences between the United States and the communist world, Congress passed a law in 1954, inserting the words “under God” into the pledge. It then 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."
During the turmoil of the 1960s new challenges faced the pledge. Students protesting U.S. involvement in Vietnam and issues of inequality at home often refused to salute the flag. This prompted a proposed new version of the pledge. At the invitation of Look magazine, James Allen, a former U.S. Commissioner of Education, revised the pledge to meet these concerns. His 1970 version read: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and dedicate myself to the principle that the republic for which it stands shall be in truth one Nation, under God, indivisible, dedicated to liberty and justice for all." Allen hoped that by emphasizing the ideals of America and acknowledging that all citizens had not yet achieved them would help revive the pledge. 5
In 2002, a new controversy surrounded the pledge. An Oregon man who was an atheist, filed suit in federal court on behalf of his child, a public school student. The suit claimed that the classroom recitation of the pledge violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment and constituted a governmental endorsement of religion. (Newdow v. United States Congress ) The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Its opinion found the phrase “under God” was not merely a passive reference to religion. It also found that schools should not endorse the concept that our country was “under God” by allowing the pledge in classrooms or school events. A storm of protest greeted the court’s decision and the judge stayed, or postponed, his order to ban the pledge until the decision could be judicially reviewed. 6
For 120 years, Americans have recited and debated the pledge of allegiance. It remains to be seen whether or not the courts will overturn the Newdow decision, but it is clear that the pledge remains with us as we move into the 21st century.
For Discussion and Writing
1. Why does the wording of the pledge become controversial in times of national crisis or strife?
2. Read the original version of the pledge carefully. What do you think Francis Bellamy was trying to emphasize? Why?
3. Compare Bellamy’s original version with the 1954 version. How did the emphasis of the pledge shift? Why?
4. Read James Allen’s proposed 1970 version of the pledge. What was the author trying to accomplish with his wording?
5. Which version of the pledge are you most comfortable with? Explain.
1 Stuart Lutz, “Seasons of the Flag,” in American Heritage (March 2002), 59.
3Minersville School District v. Gobitus, 310. US 586, 1940.
4West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 1943.
5Todd Clark, “Change in a Free Society,” Bill of Rights Today (Summer, 1971), 1.
6Margaret Crosby, “Pledge to Kids,” Los Angeles Daily Journal (September 3, 2002), 6.