One hundred twenty-five years ago, a former minister turned advertiser published an oath that would become a hallmark of American schooling. Francis Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance partly as a marketing scheme. The Youth’s Companion, one of the first weekly magazines in the nation to target both adults and their children, hired Bellamy to develop promotional strategies for commemorating—and profiting from—the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to America. He was an odd choice for the job. An outspoken supporter of workingmen’s rights, Bellamy was vice president of Boston’s Society of Christian Socialists and an avid participant in the social gospel movement: a late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century crusade against social, political, and economic injustice.
Much of Bellamy’s activism was in response to a dramatic increase in U.S. immigration that took place during his lifetime. Rather than joining a rising tide of nativism, Bellamy and other social gospel advocates anticipated that a “well-organized and patriotic public education system” would inculcate newcomers with American ideals and values. Accordingly, the highlight of Bellamy’s Columbus Day program involved assembling students at their local schools to recite a pledge in salute to the American flag (with the Companion profiting from flag sales throughout the lead-up to the event). The U.S. didn’t have an official pledge of national loyalty, however, so Bellamy composed his own: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Bellamy later admitted writing the pledge with an eye toward the ritual entailed in reciting it rather than an understanding of its meaning. “When you analyze it,” he claimed, “you find a mouthful of orotund words, most of them abstract terms—a bunch of ideas rather than concrete names . . . this pledge would seem far better adapted to educated adults than to children.” Nevertheless, school boards around the country began compelling student recitation as part of a morning flag salute. In 1898, New York became the first state to legislate the requirement, passing its statute one day following the U.S. declaration of war against Spain. By 1917, with the eruption of nationalism accompanying America’s entry into World War I, pledging allegiance to the flag became a fixture of public education in America.
Over time, the pledge underwent three revisions, most notably during the Cold War when Congress added the phrase “under God” in reaction to the “godless communism” many believed was infiltrating public schools. Yet perhaps the most important moment in the pledge’s history occurred in 1940, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state governments could compel students—in this case members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses—to recite the pledge even if they claimed that it violated personal religious prohibitions against worshipping graven images. “We are dealing with an interest inferior to none in the hierarchy of legal values,” Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote for the court’s 8-to-1 majority. “National unity is the basis of national security.”
Controversy immediately enveloped the court’s decision. Legal experts interpreted it as an outright violation of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause and some justices privately expressed concern with the violence that the ruling triggered against the Witnesses. Supreme Court law clerks called it “Felix’s Fall of France” decision because they believed that the evacuation of French and British Expeditionary Forces from Dunkirk, France, which occurred while Frankfurter wrote the decision, strongly influenced his judgment. Just three years later—at the height of America’s involvement in World War II—the court overruled its decision in the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnett.
As we celebrate National Pledge of Allegiance Day—the anniversary of the first publication of the Pledge of Allegiance—we would be wise to recall how Bellamy sought to use his pledge to initiate immigrants into the great American experiment in freedom and civic responsibility, rather than build walls that shut them out. And we would benefit from listening to the words of Justice Robert Jackson, who delivered the opinion for the majority in the West Virginia case on Flag Day in 1943: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”
Charles Dorn is the associate dean for academic affairs and a professor of education at Bowdoin College. He is the co-author of the forthcoming Patriotic Education in a Global Age and For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America, which was published in 2017.