One day in early July 1923, Francis Bellamy was walking down Fifth Avenue in New York City. He had felt agitated for several months because his authorship of the Pledge of Allegiance, which had been written some thirty years before, was being disputed—again. This time he had heard it in a radio interview with the current owner of the Youth’s Companion magazine. Bellamy had been passive in responding to previous challenges. But now, at age sixty-eight, he was ready to fight back.
The magazine had asserted that Bellamy’s boss, James Upham, had actually drafted the Pledge in 1892, and then sent it down to the editorial staff for polishing. Perhaps it was the other way around. But the Companion’s statement dismissed Bellamy as just one of several junior editors who had a hand in wordsmithing the salute. While the statement acknowledged that the “name of Francis Bellamy of Massachusetts is sometimes associated with the Pledge,” so was “Frank E. Bellamy, a Kansas schoolboy.” Regardless, the magazine stated it was Mr. James B. Upham who had crafted the piece, and it was he who should be credited.
Bellamy commenced a vigorous defense of his authorship. He wrote a letter on June 19, 1923, to Companion owner C. E. Kelsey in which he asserted politely but firmly that he, Francis Bellamy, had written “every one of the 23 words . . . without the change of a single word by Mr. Upham or anyone else.” Kelsey’s eventual reply provided no satisfaction. Bellamy proceeded to pursue other sources that would corroborate his position.
It was quite by accident that Bellamy encountered Mr. and Mrs. John Winfield Scott on that busy New York street in 1923. Scott had been in charge of the advertising office of the Companion during the time the Pledge was written. Both he and his wife, Florence, had participated in planning the national celebration during which the Pledge was first recited. They had also attended a first anniversary event in New York City. Both Upham and Bellamy had been present. The Scotts and Bellamy hadn’t seen each other since. But when Bellamy disclosed the Companion’s authorship challenge, the Scotts shared his outrage.
A few days later, on Bellamy’s urging, Florence Scott wrote a detailed account of “our last meeting, about thirty years ago,” that she had remembered for Bellamy at their Fifth Avenue encounter. It was at the ceremony raising the flag at the Navesink Highlands in New Jersey. And though her memory of the date was off by several months—“it was not before July 1893,” she wrote—the rest of her account about the April event was extremely detailed, including a listing of the various attending dignitaries. She then recalled that Mr. Upham himself had introduced Bellamy as the writer of the Pledge. “It so happened that I was with Mr. Upham most of the day,” she wrote, and “Mr. Upham introduced you to several other persons, as he did to me, as the writer of the Pledge of Allegiance. . . .” Finally, she described “the very climax of the proceedings . . . when you, as the author of the Pledge, were called upon to lead us in repeating it.”
If the Pledge were written and published in a national journal today, there would be little doubt about who wrote it. The author’s name would most certainly be shown. Take Time or Newsweek, the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly, even publications directed to the adolescent market, like National Geographic Kids. These magazines all identify the staff writers and others who contribute reports or collaborate on stories. None omits bylines or attribution, except for certain recurring features.
Not so with the Youth’s Companion. It was the policy of the magazine, at least during Daniel Ford’s ownership and Francis Bellamy’s tenure, that the name of an employee who is an editorial contributor not be printed. This was an acknowledged rule, even though there is no evidence that it was written down anywhere. The message to salaried employees was: you work for and should promote the magazine; you should not seek to gain individual recognition or personal credit for your efforts.
Thus, when the Pledge was first printed in the “official programme” of the 1892 Columbus Day celebration, it was identified as the “Youth’s Companion Pledge of Allegiance.” Bellamy understood and accepted the nonattribution policy, though he later expressed objection to being denied signing rights. His superiors also felt that the new salute would be better received if it appeared “to emanate” from the national organization of public school superintendents that was sponsoring the event, rather than the hand of an individual.
Moreover, the Pledge had been conceived as a one-event exercise. It was written for the purpose of commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of America’s discovery by Christopher Columbus. Its recitation would accompany President Benjamin Harrison’s proclamation of the 1892 Columbus Day as a national holiday. It was not commissioned for flag-raising rituals or patriotic expressions going forward.
Bellamy was content with his work at the magazine and was stimulated by the national endeavor in which he was involved. He respected the publisher, Daniel Ford, and no doubt found him to be the “modest and self-effacing editor” that others described. (Ford’s name did not even appear in the magazine until after his death in 1899; this also helps to explain the no-attribution policy.) Bellamy appreciated that “Mr. Ford selected me to aid [the] patriotic work of putting the Flag over the Schools.” He was also proud of the “great opportunity” to chair the NEA executive committee. As for his immediate supervisor, James Upham, who was related by marriage to Ford, Bellamy said he always enjoyed a collegial relationship.
When Bellamy left the Companion at the end of 1895, he made no public effort “to attach his name to the Pledge as the author.” A “spirit of loyalty” prevented him from doing so, he said. But it was not long thereafter that the first challenge was mounted.
The challenge came from a grade-school student from Cherryvale, Kansas, a small town in the southeast corner of the state. His name was Frank Bellamy, but he was not related. Frank submitted the Pledge as his entry in a school contest in 1896. Apparently, the Columbus Day celebration of 1892 (four years previous) had not been remembered by the Cherryvale contest organizers because Frank won. He gained some local repute, and confused some national media. But Frank’s fraud was quickly revealed, and Francis did not take much notice.
Francis Bellamy did notice an article that was published in the Companion on December 20, 1917. It was offered in response to an inquiry from Herbert Fison, the Malden, Massachusetts, librarian, asking who had written the Pledge. The editor’s reply carried a story by staff member Seth Mendell and a photo of James B. Upham. The magazine’s official view of the creation and authorship of the Pledge was unequivocal: “Mr. Upham had already written a form of the Pledge very much like that which is now so well known, and with the help of other members of the firm and of members of the editorial staff the present and final form was written.”
Bellamy was astonished. And he became more so when the story was followed by a pamphlet affirming this claim was sent to libraries across the country. The pamphlet, which was also distributed to anyone who wrote to the magazine asking for clarification on authorship, clearly attributed the full creation of the pledge to Upham:
Various patriotic men . . . have been mentioned as the authors, but there is no evidence to show that they did more than discuss and approve the rough draft prepared by Mr. Upham, and afterwards condensed and perfected by him and his associates of the Companion force.
A written debate between Bellamy and the Companion ensued.
The author’s challenge to his former employer became progressively heated. Imposed anonymity might be okay; acquiescence to credit given to someone else was not. Though it could not offer substantiated evidence to the contrary, the magazine refused to deal with Bellamy’s claim and recant its attribution to Upham.
Emotions simmered for several years—until reignited by a radio interview in 1923. In a series of written exchanges that summer, the Companion’s editor advised Bellamy that “the best course seems to be to leave the matter where it stands: that is, that the Pledge is the Companion’s Pledge, that the inspiration came from Mr. Upham . . . and that no individual credit be given for work done in carrying out any part of the general scheme.”
Bellamy found this response to be not only obstinate, but he labeled it maligning, dishonest, and hypocritical. Here was the magazine crediting a man who had been dead for eighteen years with something he had not accomplished, and then refused to correct the error because no credit to an individual should be given! “Absurd!” Bellamy could not contain himself. The Companion’s position was “grievously unjust,” a “palpable discourtesy,” and “a collusion to suppress the truth.” The publication refused to arbitrate further, and ceased responding to Bellamy’s letters after writing to Bellamy with one final heated letter:
Your third letter in regard to the Companion Pledge of Allegiance does nothing to change our convictions. We repeat that Mr. Mendell’s account of the origin of the Pledge was prepared with deliberate care soon after the event and that Mr. Mendell was a man beyond most men, exact and scrupulous in statement. We add that your intimation that Mr. Mendell was actuated by any “malignity” towards you to make a “dishonest” report of the facts is preposterous. Against the careful statement of this honorable man, you bring only your own unsupported and interested assertions. We believe Mr. Mendell’s account implicitly.
Bellamy died six years later, in 1931, at the age of seventy-six, in Tampa. Despite the firm brush-off by the Companion, he maintained his claim of authorship and repeated it to anyone who would listen. In a speech shortly before his death he said: “I have the happiness of realizing that I once, in my young manhood, contributed to my Country an easily remembered symbol of patriotism which has become historic and has been in many millions of individuals a spur to their love of Country and Flag.”
He was buried in his hometown of Rome, New York, without the acknowledgment he so desperately sought from the Companion. But since the magazine closed its doors in 1929, Bellamy at least enjoyed the satisfaction of outliving it. And though he couldn’t take pleasure in it, his friends and relatives must have been content to read the obituary headline in The New York Times on August 31, 1931: FRANCIS M. BELLAMY, PATRIOTIC WRITER, DIES; Author of “The Pledge to the Flag” Is Stricken in Florida at the Age of 75.*
The Upham Family Association of Malden, Massachusetts, a genealogical organization that included James Upham among descendants of the Upham clan in America, continued to press the issue of authorship to declare their family member the official author of the Pledge. And in 1930 the president of the U.S. Flag Association, Colonel James A. Moss, U.S. Army retired, approved the Upham claim based on the claims and evidence presented by the Upham family.
In 1936 the controversy resurfaced when it piqued the interest of a young woman from Portsmouth, Virginia. Twenty-two-year-old Margarette Miller, a self-described “wallflower type,” was deeply moved by the recitation of the Pledge on Armistice Day (which is observed today on November 11 as Veterans Day). She soon threw herself into the mission of solving the conflicts of the Pledge’s authorship.
Miss Miller (she never did marry) dispensed quickly with the lingering claim of Frank Bellamy, the Kansas schoolboy. She then moved on to James Upham, whom she discovered had descended from the original settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She embraced him as the author. She even persuaded her hometown newspaper, the Portsmouth Star, to salute Upham with a headline edition on his birthday.
Further, the Order of Job’s Daughters of Portsmouth started plans to erect a $30,000 memorial to James Upham in Washington, D.C. Job’s Daughters, a Masonic youth organization for girls aged thirteen to twenty, described themselves at the time with a goal to “band together girls for spiritual and moral upbringing, to teach love of country and flag . . . home, parents and elders.”
Soon enough, however, Miller found herself confronted with a letter from David Bellamy of Rochester, New York. This was Francis’s son. He told her that she was wrong about Upham, and that he remembered clearly his father writing the Pledge.
Miller sought a higher authority before the Job’s Daughters memorial could be built. She went back to Colonel Moss at the U.S. Flag Association to get him to restate in unqualified terms the Upham claim. Now questioned in this manner, Moss gave the matter an official bearing by having the association appoint a committee of three renowned academic historians—department heads from Fordham, Georgetown, and Washington universities—to review all available documents and render a definitive decision. They concluded in 1939 that it was in fact Francis Bellamy who wrote the Pledge and Colonel Moss reversed his previous declaration. Time magazine, reporting on Colonel Moss’s reversal, said: “Caution probably cost Patriot Upham a sumptuous monument. Last week Colonel Moss penitently announced that Francis Bellamy wrote The Pledge.”
Margarette Miller, who would go on to refer to herself as Dr. Miller after she was given an honorary doctorate from Upper Iowa University for her efforts in clarifying the Pledge authorship issue, chronicled her quest in a 1946 book entitled Twenty-Three Words.*
The authorship battle didn’t end there, however. The U.S. Flag Association’s conclusion came under renewed attack in the mid-1950s. The Upham Family Association again gathered evidence they said proved the case for James Upham. They revived the claim with help from David Brickman, editor, and Archie Birtwell, staff reporter, of the Malden Evening News.
In a series of five articles, Birtwell presented the Upham case in a step-by-step recounting of the story and the evidence he uncovered. Part of the documented proof that the Upham family gathered (and which Birtwell used in his articles) were sworn affidavits from members of the staff of the Companion who were working at the publication at the time of the drafting of the Pledge. The affidavits were emphatic in favor of the Upham claim, if not precise with the details. One former staff member said: “I can recall his [Upham] reading it and explaining it to me, and his enthusiasm concerning it as combined with the flag-on-every-schoolhouse campaign.” Another staff member, a former editor who was close to Upham, was more specific: “Mr. Upham wrote it; it was handed to each of the editors and partners in turn for comment, criticism and suggestion.” Another former editor echoed this memory: “The idea and the original draft of the Flag Pledge came from Mr. James B. Upham. . . . some minor polishing was contributed by other members of the Companion Group. . . . All those who have knowledge of the matter insist emphatically that it is highly erroneous to describe anyone except Mr. James B. Upham as the ‘author’ of the Pledge.”
The Evening News series also repeated the details of a face-to-face interview between an Upham family member and Francis Bellamy that was conducted in Tampa and used to get the nod for the Upham claim from the U.S. Flag Association in 1930. During the interview, the Upham representative pressed Bellamy for copies of any original notes or proofs of the Pledge from the time when it was written. Bellamy had nothing. In fact, as the Upham supporters were quick to point out, Bellamy had no evidentiary materials relating to the Pledge until after Upham’s death in 1905. A Tampa lawyer who witnessed the 1929 exchange would later write: “From the result of the interview I became thoroughly convinced that Mr. Bellamy was not the author of the ‘Pledge to the Flag.’ His conduct was that of a gentleman throughout during the interview, but somewhat theatrical, and I formed the distinct impression that he was a lover of publicity and not opposed to seeking it when the occasion was presented.”
With such a direct assault on the Bellamy claim, the Bellamy family countered with David Bellamy issuing a public request through a 1956 letter to the Christian Science Monitor that the controversy be elevated to a still-higher authority—the Library of Congress. “The issue should be settled soberly and calmly by a study of the prima-facie evidence on both sides,” he wrote.
The Library of Congress accepted the appeal. A further, even more exhaustive study was undertaken. After a year and a half of work, a thirty-five-thousand-word report was issued with the following conclusion:
Unless one is prepared to believe that Francis Bellamy was a deliberate and conscienceless liar, the mass of his testimony is overwhelmingly in his favor.
We, for our part, do not believe that Francis Bellamy did lie. . . . We are therefore constrained to pronounce in his favor.
Congressman Kenneth Keating (R.-N.Y.) delivered the document to Congress on August 8, 1957, saying that he “hoped that this definitive report will end once and for all any dispute as to the pledge’s authorship.”
The Upham family would never again directly challenge the actual authorship attribution. But the group, now called the Upham Family Society, Inc., with its membership headquarters in the 1703 Upham home and family homestead in Melrose, Massachusetts, continues to maintain that without Upham there would be no Pledge. At the minimum, an Upham Family Society spokesperson says, Upham “wrote something like ‘I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the Republic for which it stands’ and turned the matter over to Francis Bellamy and maybe a whole committee.” And while the organization has put the issue to rest as far as the Library of Congress determination of official authorship, the membership card of the Upham Family Society reads in part: “Pledge originated by James Bailey Upham, Malden, MA.”
*The Times not only got Bellamy’s middle initial wrong—it is “J” for Julius—but also his age; he was seventy-six.
*The book is packed with documents, but the problem was its subtitle: The Life Story of the Author of the Pledge of Allegiance as Told in His Own Words. This was odd since there is no evidence that Miller ever met Bellamy. Adding to the problem, Miller’s research papers were given to an upstate New York businessman who has so far refused to share them with researchers.