For the Love of Country?

Against the Current, No. 121, March/April 2006

Jennifer Jopp

to the flag
The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance
By Richard J. Ellis
University Press of Kansas, 2005,
297 pages, $29.95 Cloth.

VISITED ONCE AGAIN by the vultures of patriotism and gnawing anxieties about the nature of our republic, we are falling into a renewed debate about our peculiar brand of patriotism. Investing symbols and rituals with meaning others find puzzling, we adorn our automobiles with yellow decals, sport flag lapel pins, and require school children to daily swear allegiance to the state.

In other countries, more schooled in the dangers of demagogic nationalism, such open displays of fervent patriotism are greeted with suspicion.

For those who would understand the contours of the contemporary landscape, to the flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance is engrossing and edifying. Richard Ellis tells the fascinating story of the creation of the Pledge of Allegiance from its origins in the schoolhouse flag movement of the late 1880s until the recent Supreme Court decision in the Newdow case. [See Elk Grove Unified School District v. Michael Newdow.]

Ellis opens his discussion with the 2002 Federal Court of Appeals decision in Newdow, in which the Court first declared the phrase “under God” of the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional and a violation of the separation of church and state. [See Newdow v. U.S. Congress 292 F.3d 597 (2002)].

Most telling were the reactions to the Court’s decision. Senator Byrd, more lately known to us as a voice of reason, thundered that he wasn’t going to “…stand for this country’s being ruled by a bunch of atheists.  If they don’t like it, let them leave.”

A Gallup poll, meanwhile, found that nine in ten Americans favored keeping the Pledge unchanged (always shocking to discover, once again, what a minority one is in!)  (to the flag, ix, x. All page references in this review are to the book.)

Congressional and other leaders spoke of “two centuries of American tradition,” in which we have “always been ‘one Nation, under God.’” Historical memory in America is short and few Americans remembered — or knew — that the phrase had been added only in 1954. Such amnesia allowed Americans to view the phrase as part of our immutable past.

Indeed few Americans know much about these most-frequently cited words in our culture. The real history of the Pledge of Allegiance, Ellis remarks, is darker and more unsettling than current discussion allows. In essence the Pledge is bound up with the underside of American democracy, with the pervasive uncertainties that shape our political culture.

Fearing Immigrants, Radicals, Communists

Anxieties, reveals Ellis, “loom large in the creation, propagation, and amending” of the Pledge. A list of these anxieties is by no means unfamiliar to students of American political culture, the first being anxiety about immigrants. American ambivalence about immigrants is intimately tied, Ellis asserts, to the notion of requiring children to swear allegiance to the state in a public school classroom.

Qualms, too, about the growing commercialism of American culture in the late nineteenth century tapped earlier republican anxiety about the difficulties of maintaining public virtue in an age devoted to materialism’s excesses. Anxiety about the ability of a free society to summon the self-sacrifice necessary to defend the republic in times of danger also shaped the spread of the movement to require the Pledge of Allegiance.

While closely connected to an anxiety about immigrants, anxieties about radicals and about Communists, especially of the home-grown variety, were central to the effort to add the phrase “under God” during the Cold War-induced hysteria of the 1950s.

Ellis first turns to the early history of the creation of the Pledge, the origins of which he finds in a late nineteenth-century movement to put a flag in every schoolhouse in the nation. The link is martial and closely connected to the Civil War: the American flag was omnipresent throughout the North after the fall of Fort Sumter.

Displays of the flag continued sporadically in the years after the war.  These infrequent presentations of the flag began to alarm in the final decades of the nineteenth century. The rapid industrialization of the country, the accompanying shifts in social mores, and the influx of immigrants gave rise to fears about the future of the republic.  People decried the loss of patriotism, self-sacrifice and national unity present during the war. For some critics of the new materialism and individualism, the veteran came to embody all of the virtues of an earlier era.

New York City, port of call for millions of new immigrants, was — not surprisingly — the site of initial efforts to inculcate new immigrants, and especially their school-age children, with the tenets of American patriotism.

The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) designed a flag ceremony to be held at City College. The national branch of the organization, quite taken with the idea, urged branches to engage in the “patriotic practice” of having veterans present school children with the flag and to teach the children to view the flag “with as much reverence as did the Israelites look upon the Ark of Covenant.” (5)

Aiding the GAR in these efforts was Youth’s Companion, a mass-produced family weekly magazine with a circulation of more than 400,000 subscribers. The story of the role this magazine came to play in the creation and dissemination of the Pledge makes fascinating reading. Long before Tupperware, this magazine had hit on the idea of using premiums to urge its readers to solicit new subscriptions. The October 1888 issue of Youth’s Companion offered a flag as a premium.

The head of the premium department, James B. Upham, took it as his task to rekindle the patriotism of America’s youth. A proponent of the schoolhouse flag movement, he sponsored an essay contest, with a flag as the prize. By December, the magazine turned increasing attention to the issue and sought to celebrate the 400th Anniversary of Columbus by “raising a flag over every Public school…” in the country.” (8) This brilliant move linked the schoolhouse flag movement to the World’s Columbian Exposition, one of the most eagerly-awaited events of the late 19th century.

In 1891, Francis Bellamy came to work for the magazine. Upham and Bellamy shared a strong religious faith, one that shaped both their private practices and their views of public morality, as well as similar family and class backgrounds.

They soon came to share, as well, the work of the National Columbian Public School Celebration. Both men saw their efforts as continuing the work of their ancestors and rekindling the “spirit of selflessness, local civic involvement, and American patriotism” that they saw as threatened by “rootless and restless modern America.” (13)

Meaning, Ritual and War

Ellis next turns his attention to excavating the meaning of the Pledge. Naturally, those who study the Pledge of Allegiance attribute various meanings to it. In an engaging discussion of a children’s book, Ellis highlights the “civic patriotism” view generally current. Others, critics of American political culture, seek to emphasize Bellamy’s socialist principles and uncover a “hidden history” in the Pledge’s meaning. (26)

Ellis turns to Bellamy’s speeches and writings to find out what Bellamy himself had in mind when he penned the document. Bellamy’s words strike a note of anxiety about immigrants and emphasize the “potency of the flag to Americanize the alien child.” For Bellamy and others, public schools were the “front lines in the battle” to Americanize children of immigrants.

For men for whom war provided the requisite virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice, the military proved a seductive model. Thus, the original salute accompanying the Pledge was a raised arm with the palm held upward. (44)

How did we come to impose on our young people a ritual drawn from military exercises? The omnipresence of the Pledge owes everything to war. New York passed the first flag salute statute in 1898, the day after the United States declared war on Spain. (52)

In the years before World War One, there were few efforts to standardize the ritual and there existed a wide variety in its exercise. The Great War and the Red Scare that followed changed all that. In a 1923 essay entitled, “A New Plan Counter-Attack on the Nation’s Internal Foes” (including Pacifists, Wobblies, and others), Bellamy outlined his plan to use the Pledge of Allegiance to promote patriotism. (68)

The close connection between the mandating of patriotic rituals and the fear of subversion is illuminated throughout this discussion: The General Strike provided the context for the 1919 passage of a mandatory flag salute statute in Washington State. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the flag salute and Pledge of Allegiance gradually became a mandatory part of the school day in districts across the nation.

As the Pledge gained prominence as a symbol of American patriotism, resistance to reciting it grew apace. Sporadic resistance had, of course, existed from the outset. The most important and enduring sources of opposition to the Pledge were religious.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, in particular, faced great hostility and repeated episodes of vigilante violence for their dissent from the increasingly common practice. In Jehovah’s Witnesses’ opposition to the Pledge, they noted the similarities between the raised stiff arm salute then common in the United States and the “Heil Hitler” salute of Nazi Germany, where the sect faced persecution.

A shift in public perception after school expulsions and brutality against Jehovah’s Witnesses (often carried out by members of the American Legion), as well as an interest in delineating the American practice from the German one, led to an amended (and standardized) salute with the hand over the heart (“Lincoln’s Salute”), making the Pledge “safe for democracy.” (120)

Policing Americanism

Fear again raised its head in the 1950s debate about what distinguished the United States from Soviet Russia. Here another fraternal organization, the Knights of Columbus, took up the mantle of “policing the boundaries of Americanism…” (130) Conceived as a weapon in the war against Communism, which deadened the “mind and soul by a materialistic philosophy of life.” The new phrase added to America’s arsenal of weapons a “spiritual weapon which will forever be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.” (137)

Protesting the Pledge in the following decades had a decidedly different cast. Students active in the Civil Rights movement and in protests against the Vietnam War began to object to the Pledge of Allegiance on political grounds. By the middle of the 1970s, students had won the right to remain seated during the recitation of the Pledge and not to be expelled from school for their refusal to participate.

 Teachers, too, struggled to be free from the requirement of leading their students in the morning ritual. Here the issue was more complex, given the role assigned to teachers in the inculcation of patriotism. The courts, however, ultimately also ruled that it was not constitutional to compel teachers to lead their classes in such exercises when there were alternate methods of instilling civic education.

Why Pledge? To What?

“One nation…indivisible?” asks Ellis, as he illuminates the ways in which Republicans in the years since the Reagan Presidency have effectively mined public discussion of the Pledge of Allegiance and made great political theater out of public recitations of the Pledge to send their Democratic opponents scurrying.

 By 1988, the Republican Party platform vowed to “protect the Pledge of Allegiance in all schools as a reminder of the values which must be at the core of learning for a free society.”(182) Throughout the 1990s, the Republican Party turned again and again to this successful technique for partisan political gain.

Republican strategists used frequent references to the Pledge as a symbol to the populace, allowing them to portray themselves as more “in touch with the values of the average American than are liberal Democrats.”(207) In the aftermath of September 11th, many states either enhanced existing statutes or added new requirements for the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools.

Why does the United States, almost alone among Western democratic nations, require its school children to swear allegiance to the nation-state? What does it mean to “pledge allegiance” in a liberal society? Bellamy chose the word allegiance, notes Ellis, as one which would resonate for a generation still familiar with the Civil War, for he noted that “allegiance was the great word of the Civil War period,” when it “had been used as a test of loyalty.” (210)

The unique feature of the Pledge, of course, unlike other all other pledges is that it is required of children. Ellis discusses, but does not explore as fully as he might, the ways in which anxieties about the American nation center on childhood.

A late nineteenth-century advocate of teaching patriotism in public schools, in language one might hear echoed today, viewed public schools as the “great fusing furnace” in which “from the plastic stream of American childhood” patriotic rituals make “American citizens.” (216) Then, as now, the Pledge is really about grafting the transformative power of war through the daily enactment of fealty onto children, thereby creating virtuous citizens for the republic.

Paradoxes abound. The Pledge expresses and reflects “a profound faith in the transformative and liberating power of American ideas.” Adherence to the central tenets of a creedal orthodoxy allow all to “become American.” Yet the price of admission is high: adherence to the central tenets of a creedal orthodoxy.

The irony, as Ellis so effectively excavates, is that those who promote the Pledge are often cast as the true patriots, while it is “arguably those who would dispense with a daily Pledge who are the ones who harbor the greatest faith in the enduring power and strength of American institutions and American ideas.” (222)

While incantations to God and justice might give us pause, national self-criticism and the mobilization of movements for social justice are perhaps two of the Pledge’s as-yet-to- be-fulfilled promises.

For those of us long accustomed to digging around in the dark underside of American history, there’s not much here to surprise. Yet this book offers a highly readable account of a complex and important aspect of our ever-so-mysterious political culture. Long used, as Ellis so convincingly conveys, in an almost entirely celebratory way to tell the tale of American greatness, the Pledge of Allegiance raises as well the possibility of other understandings.

“For the Love of Country,” Recommended Reading

Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Case for Contamination” in the New York Times Magazine, January 1, 2006, pp. 30-37, 52.  Appiah is also the author of Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.

Joshua Cohen, Ed.  For the Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism.

David Gutterman, “Beyond Belief: A Curious Quest for Democracy, ” Oregon Humanities Fall/Winter 2005, pp.16-20.

Eric L. Muller Free to Die for Their Country: The Story of the Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War II.

Cecelia Elizabeth O’Leary To Die For: The Paradoxes of American Patriotism.

ATC 121, March-April 2006