Would you begin public gatherings by reciting an old advertising jingle?
How about a poem written by a socialist Baptist minister?
Or maybe a poem edited by the United States Congress?
These ideas sound preposterous. But that’s exactly what we’re doing when we say the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.
The Pledge was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a socialist Baptist minister who couldn’t support himself on donations to his church, so he took a job working for The Youth Companion Magazine. As part of his job, he wrote an ad to sell US Flags to school classrooms.
As part of this flag selling campaign, Francis Bellamy lobbied President Benjamin Harrison to endorse the creation of Columbus Day in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the Bahamas. When President Harrison endorsed Columbus Day, The Youth Companion published Bellamy’s patriotic poem.
It was a successful ad. It sold 25,000 flags and 475,000 copies of the magazine with the Pledge in it. The ad was only run one time. The Pledge was not one of those advertizing jingles that stick in people’s heads, like “Reach out and touch someone” or “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin.”
The Youth Companion never sold another flag. For the next five years, Columbus Day was celebrated without the Pledge.
But in 1898, the US declared war on Spain. People felt uneasy. The flag pin hadn’t become popular yet. Politicians wanted to do something to allay their fears that they might be palling around with terrorists. By 1905, 19 states had passed laws requiring school children to recite this poem as if it were a prophylactic against treason and attack from abroad. In some places the Pledge became coerced speech. Children who did not say the pledge were shamed in front of their classmates, or expelled from the classroom. All in the name of trying to UNITE the country.
The pledge has been amended three times. Twice by the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution. And once by the United States Congress. Bellamy’s original pledge was to “my flag.” This was first changed to Flag of the United States, and later to Flag of the United States of America. And in 1954, President Eisenhower signed a bill adding the words “under God.”
Anyone who has ever had an argument at a family gathering knows that you can make people shut up or change the subject, but you can’t coerce agreement, and the more you try, the less peace you have in the family. Shaming or expelling someone because they refuse to recite an advertising jingle doesn’t help children feel secure and proud of their country. You remember how you felt when you saw a classmate shamed or punished. How you felt when it was you.
The Founding Fathers knew better. They were not men frightened by disagreements or differences of opinion.
The Founding Fathers did NOT pledge the flag. They would have been horrified to see us do it. They founded this country to free citizens from arbitrary ritual and ceremonial declarations of loyalty.
John Adams: Abuse of words has been the great instrument of sophistry and chicanery, of party, faction, and division of society.
Thomas Jefferson: Patriotism is not a short frenzied burst of emotion, but the long and steady dedication of a lifetime.
Benjamin Franklin: Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.
James Madison: We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties.
Alexander Hamilton: In politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.
In 1943 the Supreme Court declared that pledging the flag cannot be made compulsory. As Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson said, “To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions.”
The Pledge does not protect our students from terrorism, or insure their patriotism. It is not a vaccine. A terrorist could recite the pledge while trying to fit in with the group. The Pledge has no magical powers.
Patriotism is not like soap or cereal. The true appeal of our freedoms cannot be put into a jingle.
Let’s return to the original vision of the Founding Fathers and let each person display patriotism in his or her own words and actions at times and places of his or her own choosing.