Feature

The Pledge: A History of the Pledge of Allegiance by Jeffrey Owen Jones and Peter Meyer

Did you know that the Pledge of Allegiance was first published in 1892 by a popular children’s magazine that was hoping to sell flags to schools?

(Thomas Dunne, 214 pages, $24)

Few Americans ever stop to wonder how the Pledge of Allegiance came to be, said Larry Cox in the Tucson Citizen. Though the pledge is “one of the first things many of us memorize as children,” we’re rarely told that it was first published in 1892 by a popular children’s magazine that was hoping to sell flags to schools. We aren’t even aware that the pledge we know today is nine words longer than the author’s elegant original: “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Though that sentiment hardly sounds as if it could be “a lightning rod for bitter controversy,” the pledge has had opponents from the start, said Melanie Kirkpatrick in The Wall Street Journal. “Legal challenges started in the first years of the 20th century, when states passed laws mandating that the pledge be recited in the public schools.” Many families were quietly advised that their children could arrive late if the requirement offended them, but troubles intensified when Jehovah’s Witnesses, labeling the pledge idolatry, “brought dozens of lawsuits in the 1930s.” Before the Supreme Court ruled in 1942 that every American had a right to refuse to say the pledge, attacks on Witnesses were common, and thousands of Witness children were expelled from school.

The pledge’s author meant well, said Beverly Gage in The New York Times. A former Christian Socialist minister, Frank Bellamy was hoping that by invoking common values, he could help his country transcend the anxieties created by civil war, a recent immigration boom, and Gilded Age social stratification. Because this book reads “like an amateur hobbyist’s guide” to pledge-related trivia rather than a probing history, we never are told what the evolution of the pledge might say about the evolution of our sense of national identity. Maybe it’s enough, though, that the authors have shared their fascination with “the odd series of events” that have led modern conservatives “to adopt the ditty of a 19th-century socialist” as a fetish object.

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