By Donna Reuss
Alexandria, VA – Like many of you, I grew up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school. As a veteran, I proudly say it at every American Legion meeting. Millions do the same every day at meetings of fraternal and patriotic organizations, along with teachers and students in America’s public and parochial schools.
December 28 is Pledge of Allegiance Day. One online suggestion on how to celebrate the day was to learn the history. While I knew of debates over the words “under God,” I had no idea how many and how far back controversies go!
George T. Balch, Civil War veteran and teacher of patriotism in New York City public schools, drafted what was considered the first pledge to the flag in 1885. It bore no resemblance to today’s Pledge of Allegiance and was not widely adopted.
In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison called for a patriotic school program to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World. A national committee of educators and civic leaders planned the program, and the Youth’s Companion, the country’s largest circulating family magazine, sponsored it.
A key element was to be a new salute to the flag for schoolchildren to recite in unison. Francis Bellamy, Christian socialist and former Baptist preacher, is credited with having written the salute while working at the Companion, which first published the Pledge of Allegiance anonymously on September 8, 1892. On Columbus Day, October 21, 1892, schoolchildren across the country stood, faced the American flag and, for the first time, recited 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.”
Intended just for recitation on that single day, the Pledge was an instant success and the Nation quickly adopted it. This may have been in part due to an older generation wanting to teach patriotism after the Civil War as Balch did, and to instill patriotic zeal for the United States in new waves of immigrants.
The Pledge of Allegiance remained unchanged until 1923, when “the Flag of the United States” replaced “my flag” at the urging of The American Legion and Daughters of the American Revolution, to ensure immigrants would not confuse their loyalties. The following year, the Pledge was altered again, adding “of America” after “Flag of the United States.” This version of the Pledge was codified into Public Law in 1942 as part of the U.S. Flag Code.
Originally, the pledge was said with a hand salute Bellamy had designed to accompany the Pledge. The “Bellamy Salute” started by resting the hand outward from the chest, then extending the arm out from the body. This gesture was used until World War II, when, as you can imagine, Americans became concerned about its resemblance to the Nazi salute. On December 22, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a law specifying that the Pledge be rendered standing with the right hand over the heart.
By World War II, many public schools required morning recitation of the Pledge. However, not everyone agreed with this requirement. Jehovah’s Witnesses maintained that reciting the pledge violated their prohibition against venerating a graven image. In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that no school or government can compel someone to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or salute the flag.
Then, as the Cold War intensified, the Knights of Columbus and other groups lobbied Congress to approve addition of the words “under God” to differentiate the United States from “godless Communism.” On June 14, 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the bill into law, creating the pledge we say today.
Anticipating the reference to God would be challenged as a breach of separation of church and state, the bill’s sponsors had argued that the new language wasn’t really religious, but simply recognized the guidance of God in national affairs. Their disclaimer did not deter litigation. Several state courts have challenged the wording over the years, all unsuccessfully to date.
And atheists are not the only ones taking issue with those two words. Advocates of religious tolerance point out that inference of a single deity may offend some followers of polytheistic religions.
Forty-seven states require that the Pledge of Allegiance be recited in public schools, with varying exemptions for students or staff who wish to opt out. For example, Florida and Texas allow a student to be exempted only if a parent or guardian consents. You can find the breakdown of laws by state that require reciting the Pledge at thehill.com.
Legal challenges likely will continue. And while we may not always agree with what is happening in our country, at least now you are a little more informed about its history to take your stand on the Pledge of Allegiance.
If you are a veteran, veteran’s family member, or know a veteran who needs help, go to Virginia Board Veterans Services at www.dvs.virginia.gov/dvs; dss.virginia.gov/community/211.cgi; contact American Legion Post 24 Veteran Service Officer at [email protected]; or check out the Resources List on the Post 24 website: valegionpost24.com. For crisis intervention and suicide prevention services, dial 988 and Press 1, or text 838255, for the Veterans Crisis Line.