Pledge of Allegiance created to sell flags

Morgan Hill school children in 1930s use “Bellamy Salute” to flag.

Assemblywoman Shannon Grove earlier this year told supporters at a campaign fundraiser that Assemblyman Luis Alejo, who represents Gilroy and Hollister, does not say the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag at state legislative sessions. Other assembly members who work with Alejo say Grove’s accusation is untrue and Alejo has even led the flag salute. The hullabaloo sparked my curiosity to discover the genesis of the pledge to our nation’s flag. The truth will no doubt alarm Assemblywoman Grove, a Republican. Our nation’s Pledge of Allegiance was written by – gasp! – a socialist.
Every year, Americans celebrate Flag Day on June 14, so now is a perfect time to consider the story of the Pledge of Allegiance. The backstory also provides an important lesson for our times, demonstrating that people with contrasting viewpoints can set aside differences and find ways to create value for our republic.
The pledge story begins with Daniel Sharp Ford, publisher of a children’s magazine called The Youth’s Companion. In 1888, Ford’s publication began selling American flags to public schools as a way to encourage subscription sales. Unfortunately, most school administrators weren’t putting these symbols of the American republic in classrooms. What Ford needed to drive up flag sales was a patriotic marketing scheme. The entrepreneur understood that creative marketing beats as the heart of modern-day capitalism. Luckily for Ford, he found a ready-made marketing opportunity – the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas.
Ford’s nephew, James Upham, ran The Youth’s Companion’s premium department. Upham came up with a novel idea – invent a patriotic pledge for children to swear allegiance to the American republic as symbolized by the flag. In 1891, Youth’s Companion hired Francis Bellamy, a former Baptist preacher from Massachusetts, to devise the flag oath.
The year before, Bellamy’s Boston congregation had forced him to resign his job as church pastor. The trouble had been the slant of his sermons. Bellamy was a Christian socialist. He believed that, following the teachings of Jesus, Christians should always be active in promoting “the rights of working people and the equal distribution of economic resources.”
In considering the tone of the pledge, Bellamy looked at the great documents of American history as well as the motto of the French Revolution – “liberty, fraternity, equality.” He sought to formulate a vow of national loyalty that was easy for children to recite and that could be delivered in less than 15 seconds. On Sept. 8, 1892, Bellamy’s Pledge of Allegiance made its debut in pages of The Youth’s Companion: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
President Benjamin Harrison signed a proclamation making the new school flag salute the focal point of the Columbus Day celebration in 1892. On Oct. 12 of that year, coinciding with the grand opening of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, children in classrooms across the United States gave their gesture of fidelity to the flag. The protocol of the specially devised “Bellamy salute” called for the young people in unison to stand erect, click their heels together and raise their right arms straight with the hand palm lifted up toward Old Glory.
Over the decades, the Pledge of Allegiance and the salute would evolve. The words “of the United States of America” were added after “flag” in response to the tide of immigrants coming from Europe.
In the 1920s, the Italian fascists would appropriate the ancient Roman salute to Caesar. The Nazi Party in Germany would follow with that same style salute to venerate its leader Adolf Hitler. Unhappily, the fascist salutes seemed awkwardly similar to Bellamy’s Pledge of Allegiance original flag gesture. On Dec. 22, 1942, Congress amended the Flag Code, requiring citizens place hand over heart.
A decade later, McCarthyism arrived. Americans grew fearful of “Commie atheists” taking over the nation. So in 1954, President Eisenhower signed the proclamation adding the phrase “under God” to the pledge to highlight America’s religious heritage.
On Flag Day, let’s remember that the banner of red, white and blue is an icon symbolizing our American republic and our shared values. In creating the Pledge of Allegiance, Bellamy in no way intended for American children to vow fidelity to a piece of cloth. Instead, he wanted citizens to see the flag as an emblem of America’s spirit of unity.
Bellamy, I’m sure, would encourage us to stand firm and refuse to dishonor the American flag and the Pledge of Allegiance by making them a means to score political points. In pledging our allegiance to the flag, let us stand together indivisible for our republic, our liberty and justice for all.

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