On a sultry summer evening in Boston in the year 1892, a thirty-seven-year-old former clergyman named Francis Bellamy sat down at his desk in the offices of a popular family magazine where he worked and began to write:

I pledge allegiance to my flag . . .

Neither Bellamy nor anyone else could have imagined that the single twenty-three-word sentence that emerged would evolve into one of the most familiar of patriotic texts and, based on student recitations alone, perhaps the most often repeated piece of writing in the history of the English language. A standard ritual of childhood for most native-born citizens and a regular practice for many adults, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is so deeply embedded in American life that it is natural to believe that the text came from on high, or that it bubbled up spontaneously from the fruited plain, far back in our history. Before I heard, a few years ago, about Francis Bellamy and the writing of the Pledge, I had never stopped to think how or where it had originated. The Pledge of Allegiance had just always been there. It never occurred to me that a person had actually composed it. If I thought about the Pledge being written at all, I dimly pictured a man in a white wig with a quill pen, or a dashing figure in a ruffled shirt on the deck of a frigate, bombs bursting in air.

But no. As it turns out, the Pledge wasn’t scratched on parchment in the mists of time. It came to life not that long ago, very near the beginning of the twentieth century. And the birth of the Pledge was more prosaic than heroic. It wasn’t chiseled in granite or penned in blood on a battlefield. It was scribbled on scrap paper by Frank Bellamy, a guy stuck at the office on a hot summer night.

It is amusing to play historical voyeur and look back on Bellamy hunched over his desk jotting drafts on the back of an old office form. It must have seemed to him a very ordinary moment in time. There was, of course, no way for him to know that he was writing for the ages, that the words he was scribbling on deadline would spring from the lips of generations of Americans long after he was dead and gone. Never could he have conceived that in the twenty-first century multitudes of children all over the United States would begin every school day reciting his words (though somewhat altered by textual fiddling over the years). Nor could he have guessed that the flag salute he was composing—for an event that was part patriotic celebration, part promotion for the magazine that employed him—would find such a variety of uses in American life.

Today, in addition to marking the official opening of every school day for millions of students (even some homeschoolers recite it), the Pledge of Allegiance has become a ceremonial must for all occasions. Committees, councils, and legislatures—from PTAs and zoning boards to the U.S. Congress—intone the Pledge at the start of every session. Rotary, Elks, Lions, Kiwanis, Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts, American Legion, Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), Knights of Columbus, B’nai Brith, and scores of other clubs, societies, and associations open every meeting with the Pledge. It is recited at graduations and county fair openings, at groundbreaking ceremonies and monument dedications, at professional conventions, football games, and stock car races. It is spoken in a blended chorus of accents from around the world by newly sworn American citizens. In times of war and in times of economic distress, saying the Pledge can be a kind of incantation to express solidarity and to ward off evil.

Thinking back on the evening when he wrote the Pledge, Francis Bellamy said later in life that he intended to create a vehicle for expressing “intelligent patriotism”—not only love of country but, just as important, awareness of the nation’s ideals. Bellamy also said that, with the Civil War still very much in living memory and waves of immigrants arriving on American shores, he intended the phrase “one nation indivisible” (as he originally wrote it) to stand as a strong affirmation of national unity.

He would surely be pleased to see that, in today’s ever more disparate society, reciting the Pledge can be a unifying ritual that bridges social and cultural divides. It is one of the few practices shared by all Americans. Yet who could have suspected that this simple flag salute would, time and again over the years, be a lightning rod for bitter controversy? That controversies over reciting the Pledge would be the focus of three U.S. Supreme Court cases and at least one other landmark appellate decision?

No doubt a former clergyman like Bellamy, whose university commencement oration was titled “The Poetry of Human Brotherhood,” would be dismayed to know that American elementary-school children who refused on religious grounds to recite the Pledge in school would be expelled, their families shunned and physically attacked. That during the politically supercharged days of the 1960s, in a town not far from his birthplace in western New York State, a teacher who stood in respectful silence rather than reciting the words of the Pledge would be fired and barraged with hate mail. That a candidate for president of the United States would impugn the other candidate’s patriotism because as a governor he vetoed a bill compelling teachers to lead the Pledge. That, in the twenty-first century, a municipal official in Colorado who refused to stand and recite the Pledge would lose his post in a special recall election. Or that a town in Massachusetts would divide in rancor when compulsory recitation of the Pledge would be compared by Holocaust survivors to the forced loyalty oaths of Nazi Germany.

How would the politically active Bellamy have felt if he could have looked decades ahead to see that a gaggle of pressure groups, from environmentalists to antiabortion protestors, would try to add their own ideological messages to the text of the Pledge? What would have been his position had he been alive in 1954, when the U.S. Congress added “under God” to the text, a reference to the divinity which the former clergyman himself had not included? Could he possibly have imagined that the U.S. House of Representatives would one day vote to break up the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals because the court had ruled that having public school children recite the “under God” version of the Pledge violates the constitutional separation of church and state? Or that a sitting president would cite a commitment to preserving the “under God” Pledge in schools as a qualification for being named to the Supreme Court.

No one could have foreseen what the Pledge of Allegiance would become, the wrangles it would cause or the many ceremonial roles it would play, because there really had never been anything quite like it. The Pledge was an accident of history. It was something brand new, sui generis, that came to life out of a perfect coincidence of individuals and events. And nothing to match it has come along since.

What is the Pledge of Allegiance? It’s a simple question, but the more I have considered it, the more challenging it is to answer. In its uses and its symbolism, as a mirror of contemporary society and historical events, the nature of the Pledge of Allegiance is rich and complex.

One of the questions people ask me most frequently about the Pledge is whether other countries have anything like it. Yes, there are popular salutes to the flag in other nations—Indonesia and Ghana among them. But nothing I have heard about anywhere else is quite like the Pledge. No salute is so deeply rooted in the national experience or so intertwined in daily life. None is so varied in its roles and as redolent with connotation.

Reciting the Pledge is a primal American experience, a constant in our lives from earliest memory. As a part of a regular routine, saying the Pledge can seem a reflexive exercise. In a larger frame, though, the Pledge is a powerful force in the national psyche. For the great majority of people born in the United States, the Pledge as a school ritual is our introduction to what it means to be an American. For many adults, an intimate link persists between the Pledge and their fundamental sense of national identity, their most fervent convictions about what the country is and ought to be.

Because its uses and associations extend so widely in contemporary America, the Pledge is pushed and pulled, squeezed and pummeled as never before. We use it as a political cudgel, an ideological bumper sticker, a vehicle of protest, a constitutional battering ram, and a judicial litmus test. Still, the Pledge lives on. In fact, it thrives. Especially since September 11, 2001, the uses of the Pledge of Allegiance have multiplied. The day after the terrorist attacks, Muslim men in beards and robes stood before cameras in Dallas, Texas, reciting the Pledge as a demonstration of their Americanness. One month after 9/11, then secretary of education Rod Paige urged American schoolchildren to recite the Pledge as an exercise in solidarity. On the third anniversary of the attacks, then secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld read the Pledge at the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 NASCAR race. And in the fall of 2004, neighbors and friends of an American executed in Iraq intoned the Pledge at a candlelight vigil in his Michigan hometown. Reported the New York Times:

The vigil took place in the early evening while it was still light in front of the Hillsdale County Courthouse on a town square framed by light poles bearing hanging planters with purple flowers. The Pledge of Allegiance was recited, candles were wedged into plastic coffee cup lids and passed through the crowd, and a local pastor . . . was asked to say a few words.

Everyone, it seems, has a Pledge story: how they used to think it began “I play Joe legions”; how they one day blanked on the words; or about the schoolmate who refused to recite it. Lee Siskind, a businessman in Lowell, Massachusetts, told me he remembers saying the Pledge outside his tent each morning during a Boy Scout Jamboree at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Art Lubetz, a Pittsburgh architect, said he recalls that his Jewish grandmother, who escaped persecution in czarist Russia, complained about the Pledge: “I love this country. I don’t need to pledge allegiance.”

After Private James Prevetes was killed in Iraq in the fall of 2004, his first-grade teacher, Janice Hengle, called up a vision of him saying the Pledge in her classroom. “He stood perfectly straight and tall,” she told a New York Times reporter. Raise the Pledge as a topic at a local Lions Club meeting, as I did not long ago, and a flood of words pours forth. Even the most taciturn have memories to share, anecdotes to report.

My own firsthand experience with the Pledge as an adult includes two particularly memorable experiences. One occurred a few years ago in Petersburg, Alaska, where I had gone to do ground work for a documentary. I remember the Alaska Airlines jetliner I had caught in Seattle descending out of a low cloud into the half-light of a northern winter morning. Houses, boat harbors, and commercial buildings spread out below along a rim of land, surrounded by muskeg and trees, mountains and water. The cliché about Alaska as the last frontier came vividly to mind.

At the little airport terminal, Ted Smith, the mayor of Petersburg, greeted me. Mayor Smith and I drove down the town’s gravelly streets under a brightening midday sky. It was Rotary day, and the mayor had invited me to lunch.

In the low-slung Boys and Girls Club building where the Rotary Club meets, I joined a line of thirty or so men and women waiting for soup and sandwiches, which we ate at long folding tables. As lunch wound down, it was time for the business meeting, presided over by a woman in a Forest Service uniform. When she walked to the front of the room, everyone stood and prepared to recite the Pledge.

It was the first time I had said the Pledge in a public gathering in a long while. Not being a Rotarian, or a member of any of the many other groups that say the Pledge routinely, I was frankly surprised to find myself standing hand over heart, practicing a childhood ritual. But reciting the familiar phrases was somehow comforting. In this room where I was a total stranger far from home, I felt connected. The Pledge was something we had in common. Reciting it with the others made me part of the group.

Back home a few months afterward, my son Eli, then five years old, announced that he had led the Pledge of Allegiance in his kindergarten class that day.

“What was that like?” I asked. He jumped up from the living room floor and stood facing imaginary classmates.

“Please salute,” he said, placing his hand over his heart. “Please begin.” Beaming, he then recited the Pledge flawlessly.

I experienced that moment with what I can only describe as a feeling of genuine reverence. Eli’s recitation was, I realized, a rite of passage. His learning the Pledge was a first step toward civic consciousness, toward awareness that he is part of a citizenry, that he has a flag that stands for a nation with ideals and principles. Eli was moving out of the toddler world toward the larger community of the body politic. He and I, father and son, were now connecting on a new level—as fellow citizens.

As anyone who has ever said the rosary or chanted a mantra knows, repeating words over and over tends to drain them of literal meaning. One morning when I was substitute teaching in a big suburban middle school, an outsized eighth-grade boy remained sprawled in his chair as the other students stood to say the Pledge. When I motioned to him to stand up, he gave me the adolescent look of long-suffering annoyance so familiar to parents and teachers. “Why do we have to say this every morning?” he groaned. “I already know the words.” It was a good question. Why indeed?

The text of the Pledge reads as a promise of fidelity and a shorthand statement of national principles. In many contexts, though, the direct significance of the Pledge is clearly secondary to its symbolic, ceremonial function.

For school kids, beyond the patriotic promise and the evocation of high ideals, reciting the Pledge is a ritual of joint enterprise that says, this day is officially beginning now and we are going into it together. In the case of my son’s first recitation, and in my experience in Alaska, the meaning of the words was secondary to the act of reciting them. Eli didn’t understand the definition of allegiance or republic (who does?) or even of the United States of America. (He was still sorting out the basics of geography: for him, “our state” meant the entire world beyond our town.) His excitement came from standing up with his classmates, striking the ceremonial hand-over-heart pose, facing the Stars and Stripes, speaking the rhythmic text and hearing it resound around him. What happened to me in Alaska was similar. It was the feeling of unity and being at home among a group of strangers that touched me more than the ideas we were affirming.

Of course, there are many instances where the literal meaning of every word in the Pledge is important. So it was one morning in the fall of 2005 when I stopped in at the Monroe County building in downtown Rochester, New York, not far from where I live. There I found the county council chamber humming with conversations in a variety of languages. I had come to witness the monthly swearing-in of naturalized citizens in this region of the state. The information sheet I was handed said there were forty-six candidates for U.S. citizenship from thirty-one countries of the world. There were Asians, Africans, Middle Easterners, Latin Americans, and Europeans. Families and friends embraced and exchanged kisses.

The proceedings began with brief remarks from the presiding judge, who commended the participants on having worked hard to fulfill the requirements to become citizens. An official from the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Service next introduced the candidates as a group. Then they all raised their right hands and the county clerk read the oath of citizenship, a weighty text:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic . . .

After the oath, a women’s a capella octet, dressed in mauve blazers with pink carnations, relieved the somber tone of the proceedings. The altos began: thrum, thrum, thrum . . . Then the sopranos: Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord . . . I couldn’t help wondering, as they sang, how many of the new citizens were Christian. Given the moment, though, and the exuberance of the octet, no one was likely to quibble.

Next came the guest speaker, a county court judge. I braced myself for perfunctory remarks long on wind and short on inspiration. Instead, the Honorable John J. Connell spoke with emotion about how, eleven years before, he had taken the same oath on behalf of a young boy whom he and his wife had adopted from a foreign country in turmoil. “I feel privileged to be here,” said Judge Connell. “This is a day to celebrate.”

Then, after each new citizen had received a certificate and a small American flag, the group stood and recited in unison the Pledge of Allegiance. Except for the simple “I do” that they had said in affirmation of their naturalization oath, these were the only words the forty-six new citizens uttered during the ceremony. For many, I imagine, it was the first English-language text they had committed to memory. I am sure that, more than most of us, they savored the meaning of every word.

The text of the Pledge has been changing almost from the moment Bellamy set down the original twenty-two-word version:

I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands—one nation indivisible—with liberty and justice for all.

Bellamy himself made the first edit, soon after the initial version went into print. He added “to” before “the republic” because he felt it gave the lines better cadence.

As Bellamy’s flag salute became more popular, there arose a temptation to edit the text further. In the 1920s, a National Flag Commission made up of DAR ladies and American Legionnaires changed the intimate phrase “my flag” to “the flag of the United States of America.” Their stated purpose was to be sure that immigrant children arriving on American shores would know which country’s flag they were saluting. This change reflects the era of isolationism and mistrust of all things foreign that followed World War I. Ironically, Congress sharply reduced immigration quotas during this period, ensuring that there would be fewer children from overseas to salute the Stars and Stripes.

The most resounding change in the Pledge also reflected a national preoccupation with threats from abroad. This was the addition of “under God” in 1954.

I remember in that year being at school on a late-spring afternoon in the Connecticut town where I grew up. Itching to get outside and play kickball, I stood with hand over heart in Mrs. Sholz’s fourth-grade classroom, practicing the new version of the Pledge due to take effect on Flag Day, June 14. My classmates and I kept stumbling. We were accustomed to the fluid cadence of the existing text—“one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” It was hard to shake the rhythm of the old version; even the following fall a few of us would blurt out the former text in school assemblies. Eventually, though, the new Pledge became routine. Now, fewer and fewer Americans remember it any other way.

By 1954, Congress had assumed authority over the Pledge as part of the official flag code. The sponsors of the bill to insert “under God” declared that the addition would underscore the difference between our system and “Godless communism.” World War II was less than a decade in the past, and the allied commanding general was now in the White House. The Soviet Union and Red China were the new threats. Anticommunism had become a national obsession, and vestiges of the paranoia stoked by Senator Joseph McCarthy still lingered.

In Congress, there was little opposition. At the time, American culture had a more homogeneous feel than it does today. White Christian values and images predominated in the media and in popular culture. There was little popular sensitivity to practitioners of Buddhism, Hinduism, or other religions that did not embrace the concept of a single deity—let alone to nonbelievers.

Naturally, there were many individual citizens who objected to altering a text that had served the country through two world wars and the Great Depression. Judy Hyman, who was raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, remembers that her father, Bruno Giordano Shaw, was furious. An atheist named for the Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake for heresy, Bruno Shaw would rail against the addition of “under God” to anyone who would listen. Such personal protests continue to this day. My friend Kevin Kelly, a psychiatrist in New York City, wrote this in an e-mail message:

As an unregenerate child of the ’60s, I object to the Pledge even without a deity in it, because it seems to me that if you believe in the ideals for which “the Republic for which it stands” stands, you won’t want to force anyone to pledge allegiance.

Some people protest by abstaining from saying the Pledge. Others simply fall silent when the phrase “under God” comes along. One man, Billiam Vanroestenberg of Plattekill, New York, stopped saying “under God” because he found it a contradiction. Vanroestenberg told the Associated Press that he regularly omitted the phrase when reciting the Pledge at his local zoning board meeting because he felt that a nation truly under God would not discriminate against gay people, like himself. Then, in March 2004, Mr. Vanroestenberg and his partner were married by the mayor of New Paltz, New York. At the next zoning meeting, he resumed saying “under God.” “They all sort of applauded afterward,” he said.

It was as if Abraham Lincoln had entered the room. The president who saved the Union had inherited the founders’ firm belief in what E. D. Hirsch has called “a religious devotion to democracy.” And he seemed to foretell Vanroestenberg’s sudden change of heart about the “under God” phrase once the law was changed. Said Lincoln, in his famous 1838 Lyceum speech, called “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions”:

Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap—let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges;—let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;—let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.

It’s unlikely that Lincoln’s understanding of “gay” would correspond to that of Mr. Vanroestenberg, but no doubt the two men, separated by almost two centuries, share a near religious devotion to democracy.

What turned out to be the loudest “under God” protest to date came in the year 2000 from Michael Newdow, an atheist who filed suit alleging that recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in his daughter’s California public school violated the constitutional separation of church and state. Even though his daughter had the right to opt out of saying the Pledge, Newdow argued that school recitation of the “under God” Pledge sent an officially sanctioned message to his daughter that conflicted with his own religious tenets as a nonbeliever.

The case found its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and in 2002 the court issued a surprise ruling in Newdow’s favor. The opinion set off shockwaves of anger and disbelief. In Washington, politicians blasted the decision and crowded the Capitol steps to recite the Pledge en masse. Under then attorney general John Ashcroft, the Justice Department appealed the Ninth Circuit decision, joining the school district being sued by Newdow. In October 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal. Oral arguments were set for March 2004. (There is more about the hearing and its outcome in Chapter 9.)

As the pending Supreme Court case drew more and more attention to the “under God” controversy, I received a phone call from my niece Arianna. A sophomore in high school at the time, Arianna was doing a paper on the issue, and my brother had urged her to call me for guidance. As it turned out, I was the beneficiary of my niece’s clear thinking.

Arianna began telling me about her research in the diffident way school kids broach their ideas with adults. As she talked, though, it became clear that she had learned a great deal about the history of the Pledge and had thought hard about the “under God” debate. “The theme of my paper,” she said, “is how ironic it is that the Pledge of Allegiance was written as something to bring people together and now it is pulling people apart.” Ironic indeed.

The “under God” quarrel reveals the double-edged power of the Pledge. As a ritual nearly universal in American life, reciting the Pledge is really the closest thing we have to a national prayer. In this respect, though, the Pledge taps into a deep-rooted tension in American society between the religious and the secular, and it draws out the white-hot emotions that this interplay can produce.

The Pledge reveals a deep division over how best to express love of country and its founding principles. To some, the Pledge is a sublime ode to essential American ideals. To others, it is a hypocritical profession of standards—“liberty and justice for all”—that the nation fails to meet. To some, the Pledge is an opportunity to profess patriotic sentiment. For others it is a noxious test of patriotism, a loyalty oath.

The way we think and talk about the Pledge can cast light on the political and philosophical arguments that animate and divide Americans today. A retired high-school English teacher named Jim Kraus told me that, in his classroom days, he had recited the Pledge with his students, or not, depending on his feelings about the political situation at the moment. Jim’s approach to the Pledge is, I think, a striking example of a general phenomenon. People’s attitudes toward the Pledge often parallel their basic beliefs and feelings about the country.

There are parallels also between the history of the Pledge and the changing state of the nation. Over the 118 years since Bellamy wrote down the original version of the Pledge, the vicissitudes of the flag salute have vividly reflected the state of the nation and the popular mood—born, as it was, at a time when anxieties over the impact of mass immigration coexisted with expansive optimism about the nation’s future. The Pledge was the focus of intensive use during the First and Second World Wars, during the Cold War, and during the Vietnam War, and it was a fulcrum of controversy during each of those periods, as it has been in our own era of uncertainty and perceived peril.

What exactly does the Pledge mean? There is no single answer. Francis Bellamy left several accounts of what he had in mind when he composed the text. Since then, though, the Pledge has developed multiple levels and dimensions of meaning. Today, no two Americans are likely to agree on every facet of its significance. Inevitably, though, when I talk to people about the Pledge of Allegiance, the conversation always comes around to what they see as the nation’s essential values. So it seems to have been from the beginning. Francis Bellamy’s brief salute to the flag has had an almost magical power to galvanize people’s deepest feelings and beliefs about who we are and ought to be as a nation. In that sense, the story of the Pledge of Allegiance is the story of America and the American people.

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