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Parsing the Pledge of Allegiance

June 13, 2018
historical image of handwritten text of Pledge of AllegianceThe original Pledge of Allegiance, written by University of Rochester graduate Francis Bellamy in 1892. (University of Rochester photo / Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation)

When socialist minister Francis Bellamy—a member of the University of Rochester Class of 1876—wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892, he was focused on a broad effort to introduce immigrants to American beliefs and ideals through education in the public schools.

But he wasn’t thinking a lot about the students who would recite it. In an account published after his death, in a 1953 issue of the University of Rochester Library Bulletin, Bellamy allowed that the pledge’s imposing words and abstract concepts “would seem far better adapted to educated adults than to children.”

Nevertheless, schools quickly adopted the pledge, making Bellamy one of Rochester’s “most quoted alumnus.” Over the years, some students and parents considered its words carefully and took issue with its compulsory recitation.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the famed Supreme Court ruling in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. The case concerned seven children from Charleston who had been expelled from school after refusing to say the pledge, on account of their beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In a new book, Patriotic Education in a Global Age (University of Chicago Press, 2018), Randall Curren—a professor of philosophy and education at Rochester—and coauthor Charles Dorn of Bowdoin College describe the ruling in the case and explores the history of the pledge of allegiance.

“In an oft-quoted opinion delivered on Flag Day, 1943, at the height of America’s involvement in World War II, Justice [Robert] Jackson wrote for the majority, ‘If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.’”

Curren and Dorn situate the history of the Pledge of Allegiance within their larger investigation of patriotic education and its role in a global age. They argue that there is a form of patriotism associated with civic virtue and that an “inclusive and enabling just school community may contribute to its development in some valuable ways.”

Read more about Bellamy and the story of his pledge in this excerpt from Curren and Dorn’s chapter “Heroes and Rituals.”

Excerpted with permission from Patriotic Education in a Global Age by Randall Curren and Charles Dorn, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2018 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.


The Pledge of Allegiance

Francis Bellamy came to the Youth’s Companion after serving as a minister in Boston for eleven years. An outspoken supporter of the rights of the laboring classes, he held the position of vice president of Boston’s Society of Christian Socialists and was a charter member of the city’s Nationalist Club (an organization established to bring to fruition the socialist ideals that Edward Bellamy, Francis’s cousin, expressed in his popular utopian novel Looking Backward). Bellamy promoted the social gospel, around which a movement formed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries dedicated to ridding the United States of social, political, and economic injustice. As with the movement’s leaders, including Josiah Strong and Richard T. Ely, Bellamy was profoundly concerned with the nation’s rapidly changing racial and ethnic composition. Rather than opposing immigration, however, many promoters of the social gospel, including Bellamy, claimed that a “well-organized and patriotic public education system” would bring these newcomers into alignment with American ideals, beliefs, and behaviors.57

Foreshadowing his future career in advertising, Bellamy joined his experience as a preacher with the Companion’s promotional strategies to generate tremendous interest in the Columbian commemoration (with the Companion profiting from the sale of American flags throughout the lead-up to the celebration).58 with the official commemoration date of October 21, 1892, approaching, Bellamy began developing a program for schools to follow, which the Companion published in its September 8 edition.59 Along with parades honoring veterans, singing patriotic songs, and flying American flags in front of schools, the Companion urged that a scripted address entitled “The Meaning of the Four Centuries” be delivered at each community’s celebration.60 The address, which the Companion published along with its proposed celebratory program, explicitly linked the “memorable milestone” of Columbus’s voyage with American progress as exemplified by the public school. In language that is difficult to imagine being used to describe public education in the United States in the twenty-first century, the address declared,

we, therefore, on this anniversary of America present the Public School as the noblest expression of the principle of enlightenment which Columbus grasped by faith. We uplift the system of free and universal education as the master-force which, under God, has been informing each of our generations with the peculiar truths of Americanism. America, therefore, gathers her sons around the schoolhouse today as the institution closest to the people, most characteristic of the people, and fullest of hope for the people.61

According to the Youth’s Companion, a student recitation or pledge in salute of the flag was to be the highlight of the Columbus Day celebration (as it would be during Patriot’s week over thirty years later). The United States, however, did not have an official pledge of national faith or allegiance. Instead, a variety of pledges existed. George T. Balch had penned one for students to recite during the first Flag Day celebration in 1885, which some schools had already adopted, making it an obvious choice for use in the Columbus Day program. It read, “I give my heart and my hand to my country—one country, one language, one flag.”62 Bellamy disliked it, however, calling it “pretty but childish,” and claimed that students should recite something with greater “historical meaning.”63 Bellamy, therefore, composed his own pledge, which consisted of the following: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”64

Many years after schools across America had adopted the Pledge of Allegiance, Bellamy admitted writing it with an eye toward the ritual entailed in its recitation rather than children’s understanding of the meaning. “When you analyze it you find a mouthful of orotund words,” Bellamy acknowledged, “most of them abstract terms—a bunch of ideas rather than concrete names . . . this pledge would seem far better adapted to educated adults than to children.”65 Nevertheless, following the Columbian Celebration, school boards in towns and cities throughout the United States began sanctioning the pledge and compelling student recitation as part of a morning flag salute. In 1898, New York became the first state to legislate the requirement, passing its statute one day following the United States’ declaration of war against Spain.66 The following year, the GAR chose to give its sole endorsement to Bellamy’s pledge while promoting legislation requiring American flags to be flown over all public schools.67 By 1913, twenty-three states had passed such laws.68 Four years later, with the eruption of unbridled nationalism that accompanied the United States’ entry into World War I, pledging allegiance to the flag became a fixture of American public education.

Over the course of the next forty years, the pledge underwent three revisions. The first occurred almost immediately following the Columbus Day celebration when Bellamy, unhappy with the rhythm of his original work, inserted the word “to” before “the Republic.” Between 1892 and the end of World War I, this was the twenty-three-word pledge that many states wrote into law. The second modification occurred in 1923 when the American Legion’s National Americanism Commission (which had assumed the GAR’s mantle) recommended that the US Congress officially adopt Bellamy’s pledge as the national Pledge of Allegiance. Fearing, however, that Bellamy’s opening phrase—“I pledge allegiance to my Flag”—permitted immigrants to pledge allegiance to any flag they desired, the commission revised the line to read, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.” Over time, schools adopted the revision.69 Finally, in 1954, after the federal government included the pledge as part of the US Flag Code during World War II, Congress reacted to the so-called godless communism many believed was infiltrating US public institutions by adding the phrase “under God” to the pledge.70 This Cold War revision eventually served as the basis for constitutional challenges to the pledge as violating the First Amendment’s establishment clause. Even prior to that moment, however, and before Congress added “under God” to the salute, students and their parents had disputed the pledge’s legality over a dozen times, with perhaps the most consequential test arising from Walter Gobitas’s instruction to his children, Billy and Lillian, to cease reciting the pledge at their Minersville public school.71

Following Billy and Lillian’s expulsion from school in 1935, the Jehovah’s Witness legal team, in cooperation with the American Civil Liberties Union, enthusiastically pursued a court challenge on the grounds that pledging allegiance to the American flag was an act of idolatry strictly forbidden by the witnesses’ faith. They argued that the pledge’s forced recitation undermined the children’s religious freedom. The Witnesses and the ACLU were eager to pursue the Gobitas case for two primary reasons. First, Pennsylvania had never passed a statute requiring students to recite the pledge, meaning that Billy and Lillian had been expelled for violating custom rather than state law (the school board adopted a regulation requiring the pledge’s recitation on November 6, 1935, during the same meeting at which it expelled the children). Second, southeastern Pennsylvania was home to a disproportionately large number of antimilitarian Quakers.72 The Witnesses assumed that this demographic context would work to their benefit, an assumption that proved true when federal district judge Albert Branson Maris, a Quaker, was assigned the case.73

In 1938, Maris ruled in the Witnesses’ favor, claiming, “while the salute to our national flag has no religious significance to me, and while I find it difficult to understand the plaintiffs’ point of view, I am nevertheless entirely satisfied that they sincerely believe that the act does have a deep religious meaning and is an act of worship which they can conscientiously render to God alone.”74 A controversial ruling because of the authority it gave the plaintiffs to define a First Amendment violation, Maris’s decision was undoubtedly affected by the social and political conditions of the time. With fascist regimes coming into power in Germany, Italy, and Japan, and Europe on the brink of war, Maris’s decision emphasized the importance of fiercely protecting democratic liberties. “We need only glance at the current world scene,” he wrote,

to realize that the preservation of individual liberty is more important today than ever it was in the past. The safety of our nation largely depends upon the extent to which we foster in each individual citizen that sturdy independence of thought and action which is essential in a democracy. . . . our country’s safety surely does not depend upon the totalitarian idea of forcing all citizens into one common mold of thinking and acting or requiring them to render a lip service of loyalty in a manner which conflicts with their sincere religious convictions. Such a doctrine seems to me utterly alien to the genius and spirit of our nation and destructive of that personal liberty of which our flag itself is the symbol.75

The Minersville School District immediately appealed Maris’s decision, and in late 1939 the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the ruling.76 With the financial support of the American Legion, however, and growing public dissatisfaction with the case’s outcome, the school board petitioned the US Supreme Court for review.

By the time oral arguments began in the case of Minersville School District v. Gobitis (a misspelling of the respondent’s surname), Nazi armies had invaded Poland, swept through Belgium, and cornered the French and British Expeditionary Forces at Dunkirk. For this reason, the 8–1 opinion that Justice Felix Frankfurter authored for the Court’s majority became known among that year’s cohort of Supreme Court law clerks as “Felix’s Fall of France” decision.77 Ruling for the school district, Frankfurter claimed—in an affirmation of judicial restraint—that the Supreme Court was not “the school board for the country” and that it neither had nor would it assume the authority to “exercise censorship over the conviction of legislatures that a particular program or exercise will best promote in the minds of children who attend the common schools an attachment to the institutions of their country.” Yet, he argued, the issue that the case presented was paramount. “We are dealing with an interest inferior to none in the hierarchy of legal values,” Frankfurter wrote. “National unity is the basis of national security.” Frankfurter then addressed the question at the center of the case: “Did the mandatory flag salute infringe upon liberties protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments?” The Court responded:

The preciousness of the family relation, the authority and independence which give dignity to parenthood, indeed the enjoyment of all freedom, presuppose the kind of ordered society which is summarized by our flag. A society which is dedicated to the preservation of these ultimate values of civilization may in self-protection utilize the educational process for inculcating those almost unconscious feelings which bind men together in a comprehending loyalty, whatever may be their lesser differences and difficulties. That is to say, the process may be utilized so long as men’s right to believe as they please, to win others to their way of belief, and their right to assemble in their chosen places of worship for the devotional ceremonies of their faith, are all fully respected.78

Claiming that the Minersville School District had indeed respected the Gobitas children’s “right to believe as they please,” the Court decided in the district’s favor, with Justice Harlan Stone providing the lone dissent.

Controversy immediately enveloped the decision. While some Americans debated its merits on the editorial pages of the country’s leading newspapers, others vented their anger at the Witnesses through beatings, acts of arson, and even a case of tar and feathering.79 In the midst of this violence, and perhaps partly because of it, three of the Court’s members, Hugo Black, William o. Douglas, and Frank Murphy, began reconsidering their positions.80 Following the Court’s summer recess, Douglas informed Frankfurter that Black was having second thoughts about the ruling. Frankfurter responded by asking whether Black had been reading the Constitution. “No,” Douglas replied, “he has been reading the newspapers.”81 Consequently, when the Court ruled against the Witnesses in a separate case involving the right to distribute proselytizing literature in June 1942, the three justices used their dissenting opinion to issue an unprecedented repudiation of their votes in Gobitis.82

With Black, Douglas, and Murphy joining Harlan Stone in criticizing the decision and newly appointed Justice Robert Jackson signaling his dissatisfaction with the ruling, the Witnesses sought a new case with which to challenge Gobitis. They found it almost immediately in West Virginia, where the state board of education had, following the announcement of the Gobitis decision, adopted a resolution requiring all public school teachers and students to pledge allegiance to the flag every day. When seven children from three Witness families residing in Charleston refused, they were expelled. with the witnesses and the ACLU supporting the legal challenge, the families won in US District Court. The state board of education consequently appealed to the Supreme Court.83

The Court responded to West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette quite differently from Gobitis.84 In a 6–3 decision, the Court ruled for the Witnesses. In an oft-quoted opinion delivered on Flag Day, 1943, at the height of America’s involvement in World War II, Justice Jackson wrote for the majority, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”85

The Supreme Court’s decision in Barnette held that students could not be forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Nevertheless, the flag salute remained a mainstay of public school ritual throughout the United States. As such, legal challenges continued to arise, one of the most recent involving the inclusion of the phrase “under God” in the pledge. With the Supreme Court deciding Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow on standing grounds rather than addressing the establishment clause issue underlying the case, however, further religious freedom challenges are expected.86 Similarly, Barnette did not address other pledge-oriented questions such as whether students need parental permission to opt out of the flag salute. Cases addressing this question, among others, continue to be argued.

The Pledge of Allegiance has played a significant role in schools’ efforts to instill patriotism in students, and we have seen throughout this chapter how such rituals have been wed to the construction and celebration of national symbols, heroes, holidays, and triumphalist history. By promoting civic and moral virtues through early literacy curricula, inspiring a belief in American exceptionalism through celebrating national holidays, and promoting patriotic loyalty through pledges of faith and allegiance, schools have sought to overcome regionalism and foster a common American identity among students, especially those newly arrived to the United States. This educational project has not gone unchallenged, however, as parents during the twentieth century have opposed the pledge, in particular, as violating their children’s constitutional rights. we turn in the next chapter to forms of learning in American public schools that moved beyond curricula of knowledge and skills, inspirations to virtue, and requiring students to participate in symbolic exercises. we will consider ways in which the circumstances of war and rural struggle, especially, led educators to develop cocurricular activities intended to inculcate patriotism and draw students directly into public and national service.
[57] Cody Dodge Ewert, “Schools on Parade: Patriotism and the Transformation of Urban Education at the Dawn of the Progressive Era,” The Journal of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era 16, no. 1 (January 2017): 65-81, at 70.

[58] Jeffrey Owen Jones and Peter Meyer, The Pledge: A History of the Pledge of Allegiance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010), 55-69.

[59] “National School Celebration of Columbus Day: The Official Programme,” The Youth’s Companion, September 8, 1892, 446-447.

[60] “The Address for Columbus Day: The Meaning of the Four Centuries,” The Youth’s Companion, September 8, 1892, 446.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Quoted in Jones and Meyer, The Pledge, 71.

[63] Francis Bellamy, “The Story of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag,” University of Rochester Library Bulletin 8, no. 2 (1953):

[64] “Salute to the Flag,” The Youth’s Companion, September 8, 1892, 446.

[65] Bellamy, “The Story of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag.”

[66] Jones and Meyer, The Pledge, 110.

[67] Ibid., 87, 109.

[68] Cecilia Elizabeth O’Leary, To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999),  231.

[69] Richard J. Ellis, To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance  (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005), 65-67.

[70] Ibid., 129-137.

[71] For a sourcebook on these cases, see Michael Kent Curtis, ed. The Constitution and the Flag: The Flag Salute Cases, 2 vols., vol. 1 (New York: Garland Publishing Co., 1993).

[72] Jones and Meyer, The Pledge, 122.

[73] Ellis, To the Flag, 99-102; Sarah Barringer Gordon, The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America  (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2010), 30.

[74] Gobitis v. Minersville Sch. Dist., 24 F. Supp. 271 (E.D.Pa. 06/18/1938).

[75] Gobitis v. Minersville Sch. Dist., 24 F. Supp. 271 (E.D.Pa. 06/18/1938).

[76] Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 108 F. 2d 683 (3d Cir. 1939).

[77] Gordon, The Spirit of the Law, 31.

[78] Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586 (1940).

[79] On the violence following the ruling, see Shawn Francis Peters, Judging Jehovah’s Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), chapter 3.

[80] Ellis, To the Flag, 109-110.

[81] Quoted in Melvin I. Urofsky, “The Flag Salute Case,” OAH Magazine of History, 9, no. 2 (Winter 1995): 31.

[82] Jones and Meyer, The Pledge, 132.

[83] Peters, Judging Jehovah’s Witnesses, 245-246.

[84] Kern Alexander and M. David Alexander, American Public School Law Fifth ed. (Belmont: Thompson/West, 2005), 240-243.

[85] West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943).

[86] Ellis, To the Flag, 140-143.

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