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How the Pledge of Allegiance Went from Marketing Ploy to Classroom Staple

boy and class reciting pledge of allegiance
A boy leads his class in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag at an elementary school in 1940. Esther Bubley/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

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Every American schoolkid can recite the Pledge of Allegiance by heart, even if they have no idea what "indivisible" means or they think the whole thing is a tribute to some guy named "Richard Stans."

The author of the Pledge, which was originally written as part of a patriotic marketing campaign, would likely be amazed that his 22-word statement — which did not include "under God" — remains a classroom staple more than 125 years after its creation.

The Pledge of Allegiance was written in the late 1800s, a time of tremendous social upheaval in the United States. Industrialization drew masses of people away from farms and into crowded cities while an unprecedented wave of immigrants, most of them penniless and uneducated, poured in from Europe. Like today, politicians and public opinion were split on the threat immigration posed to what it means to be "American."

In 1892, a former Baptist pastor named Francis Bellamy was working as an assistant editor at a magazine called the Youth's Companion, a national publication for kids and their parents. Bellamy was also a Christian Socialist, a group striving to create a more just and equitable society through Christian values. Bellamy believed that one of the best ways to "Americanize" and peacefully incorporate these waves of immigrants was through patriotic programs in the public schools.

The very idea of public schools hardly existed in America before the Civil War, says Charles Dorn, a professor of education at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine and co-author, with Randall Curren, of "Patriotic Education in a Global Age."

"The 1870s and 1880s were really the first time that people began thinking of public schools as a place where you can do things to create a better society," says Dorn. "For example, you can create more patriotic Americans if you get them when they're young and you start teaching them to be loyal to the United States."

Even though Bellamy was a fan of patriotism in public schools, he didn't write the Pledge of Allegiance with the notion that it would be recited daily by every school kid in America. His most pressing concern was selling magazines.

The Marketing of the Pledge of Allegiance

Bellamy and his bosses at the Youth's Companion wanted to capitalize on the upcoming Columbian Exposition, the 400th anniversary of Columbus' first journey to the New World. So, they teamed with patriotic civic groups like the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) to sell American flags to their subscribers, which numbered half a million nationwide.

The magazine also decided to print a patriotic program that schools could recite on Oct. 21, 1892, the national Columbian Celebration, and they tasked Bellamy with writing it. A Pledge of Allegiance was only one component of the program, which included parades, patriotic songs and tributes to Civil War veterans.

The magazine could have published an existing pledge of allegiance written in 1885 for the first Flag Day (June 14) celebration. That pledge, penned by George T. Balch, was already being recited in some schools, and read: "I give my heart and my hand to my country — one country, one language, one flag."

According to Dorn's book, Bellamy thought Balch's pledge was "pretty but childish" and decided to write something with more historical heft. Bellamy's original verse went like this:

"I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Reflecting years later on his word choice, Bellamy said that the flag in his pledge represented the Republic, and Republic was a "concise political word for the Nation," a nation proven "indivisible" by the triumph of Lincoln and the Union cause in the Civil War. He was tempted to end the pledge with the slogan of the French Revolution: "Liberty, equality, fraternity," but decided it was "too fanciful."

"But we as a nation do stand square on the doctrine of liberty and justice for all," said Bellamy, according to The New York Times. "That's all any one nation can handle. So those words seemed the only roundup of past, present, and future.''

schoolkids, bellamy salute
Schoolkids in Southington, Connecticut, give the "Bellamy Salute" while saying the Pledge of Allegiance, 1942.
Library of Congress

The Companion's marketing campaign was a roaring success. During the 1892 national Columbian Celebration, tens of thousands of public school students in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. recited Bellamy's Pledge of Allegiance in unison. Afterward, school boards in towns across the country began incorporating the Pledge into their morning flag-raising ceremonies.

Along with reciting the Pledge, Bellamy instructed students to salute the flag using a hand gesture that modern readers would find flat-out shocking. The "Bellamy Salute," as it was known, directed that "the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the Flag." In practice, the salute looked strikingly like the one favored decades later by Adolph Hitler. More on that in a minute.

Dorn says that in the decades after its publication, Bellamy's Pledge of Allegiance became wrapped up in nationalist sentiments. It's no coincidence, for example, that New York became the first state to mandate the recitation of the Pledge in 1898 exactly one day after the U.S. declared war against Spain. More state laws requiring the Pledge in schools were passed when America entered World War I.

"Under God" and Other Revisions

The Pledge of Allegiance underwent its first major revision in 1923, when delegates at the National Flag Conference, organized by the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution, decided that "my flag" was too vague and could be misinterpreted by immigrants as the flag of their home country. First, they changed it to "the flag of the United States," and then a year later tacked on "of America" to clear up any and all confusion.

In 1942, Congress officially adopted the Pledge of Allegiance as part of the Federal Flag Code. Later that same year, Congress dropped the Nazi-esque Bellamy Salute and replaced it with instructions to place the right hand over the heart.

Finally, in 1954, after lobbying from the Catholic Knights of Columbus (and other groups) Congress added the words "under God" to the Pledge. The Cold War-era logic, Dorn says, was that U.S. schools were under the threat of infiltration by "godless Communists." Signing the change into law on Flag Day, 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower said this inclusion would "strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource in peace or war."

At the time, there was no big dissent to adding "under God." But in subsequent decades, there have been lawsuits concerning whether this amounted to a government "establishment of religion," violating the Constitution's First Amendment. So far, the courts have disagreed.

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