It almost seems like the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag has been around forever. I would wager that from an early age most of us stood at attention, placed our right hand over our heart while facing the American flag in class, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. For most Americans, it’s as easy to recite as counting from one to ten. Although we have recited the pledge countless times throughout our lives, we still include the strategically placed pauses which were designed to aid in memorization.
The Pledge of Allegiance, however, has taken many forms and has evolved through the years. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, patriotism was waning due to the difficulties of the Civil War. In 1887, Captain George Balch, a Civil War veteran, drafted the first known pledge to an American flag to help teach children, especially immigrant children, loyalty to the United States. In addition, Balch helped distribute American flags to classrooms. His pledge was quickly adopted by schools across the United States. It read:
“We give our heads and hearts to God and our country; one country, one language, one flag!”
It left something to be desired but remained the accepted pledge until the 1923 National Flag Conference. Each time Reverend Francis Bellamy heard the pledge he shuddered. In 1892, Bellamy drafted his pledge and submitted it to The Youth’s Companion, a popular children’s magazine, as part of a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in America. Bellamy drafted his pledge to be short, to the point, and, most of all, respectable. Bellamy’s pledge read:
“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Bellamy’s pledge soon caught on in classrooms as well. Two pledges of allegiance would have certainly been confusing. The Youth’s Companion included a schedule of events, which included Bellamy’s pledge to celebrate Christopher Columbus’s arrival and pushed for its universal use in all schools throughout the United States. In an act of patriotism after reading newspaper and magazine articles about Columbus, including the one in The Youth’s Companion which included Bellamy’s pledge, Benjamin Harrison, President of the United States at the time, declared October 12, 1892, as Columbus Day. Despite Balch’s best efforts, Bellamy’s pledge became more popular.
Many people worried that Bellamy’s pledge was not precise enough. They were concerned that immigrants who recited “I pledge allegiance to my flag” could become confused and could be pledging allegiance to the flag of their birth country. At the 1923 National Flag Conference, delegates altered Bellamy’s pledge. This version reads:
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States, and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
The words “of America” were added after “the flag of the United States” the following year. On June 22, 1942, nearly two decades after the National Flag Conference, Congress officially adopted the following Pledge of Allegiance:
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Something is still missing from the form as we know it today. On February 12, 1948, attorney Louis Albert Bowman recited the Pledge of Allegiance at a meeting of the Illinois Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. Bowman was the chaplain. Bowman added two simple but important words which have occasionally caused controversy. With every recitation of the pledge, he included his own addition. Those two words were “Under God.” The new addition to the pledge quickly spread. On Flag Day, June 14, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill into law which made Bowman’s addition official. Thus, the Pledge of Allegiance is as we know it.
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
The wording of the Pledge isn’t the only part of the recitation which has changed. While reciting the pledge, each of us places our right hand over our heart. To remove that hand during the pledge feels nothing less than disgraceful, almost blasphemous. Along with the wording of the pledge, Bellamy created what became known as the Bellamy salute. Rather than placing our hand over our heart, Bellamy’s salute was done by outstretching the right hand aimed toward the flag with the palm down. The Bellamy salute was the official salute to the flag from 1882 until December 22, 1942, when Congress officially replaced the Bellamy salute with the right hand over the heart. It was ultimately replaced because Bellamy’s salute was adopted by Germany as the Nazi salute.
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