A Brief History of the Pledge of Allegiance

Class Recites Pledge Of Allegiance
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The U.S. Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag was written in 1892 by a then 37-year-old minister named Francis Bellamy. The original version of Bellamy’s pledge read, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic, for which it stands,—one nation, indivisible—with liberty and justice for all.” By not specifying to which flag or which republic allegiance was being pledged, Bellamy suggested that his pledge could be used by any country, as well as the United States.

Bellamy wrote his pledge for inclusion in the Boston-published Youth's Companion magazine – “The Best of American Life in Fiction Fact and Comment.” The pledge was also printed on leaflets and sent to schools throughout the United States at the time. The first recorded organized recital of the original Pledge of Allegiance took place on Oct. 12, 1892, when some 12 million American schoolchildren recited it to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of the voyage of Christopher Columbus.

Despite its widespread public acceptance at the time, important changes to the Pledge of Allegiance as written by Bellamy were on the way.

Change In Consideration of Immigrants

By the early 1920s, the first National Flag Conference (source of the U.S. Flag Code), the American Legion, and the Daughters of the American Revolution all recommended changes to the Pledge of Allegiance intended to clarify its meaning when recited by immigrants. These changes addressed concerns that since the pledge as then written failed to mention the flag of any specific country, immigrants to the United States might feel that they were pledging allegiance to their native country, rather than the U.S., when reciting the Pledge.

So in 1923, the pronoun “my” was dropped from the pledge and the phrase “the Flag” was added, resulting in, “I pledge allegiance to the Flag and Republic, for which it stands,—one nation, indivisible—with liberty and justice for all.”

A year later, the National Flag Conference, in order to completely clarify issue, added the words “of America,” resulting in, “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands,—one nation, indivisible—with liberty and justice for all.”

Change in Consideration of God

In 1954, the Pledge of Allegiance underwent its most controversial change to date. With the threat of Communism looming, President Dwight Eisenhower pressed Congress to add the words “under God” to the pledge. 

In advocating for the change, Eisenhower declared it would “reaffirm the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future” and “strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”

On June 14, 1954, in a Joint Resolution amending a section of the Flag Code, Congress created the Pledge of Allegiance recited by most Americans today:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

What About Church and State?

Over the decades since 1954, there have been legal challenges to the constitutionality of the inclusion of “under God” in the pledge.

Most notably, in 2004, when an avowed atheist sued the Elk Grove (California) Unified School District claiming that its pledge recital requirement violated his daughter’s rights under the First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses.

In deciding the case of Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, the U.S. Supreme Court failed to rule on the question of the words “under God” violating the First Amendment. Instead, the Court ruled that the plaintiff, Mr. Newdow, did not have legal standing to file the suit because he lacked sufficient custody of his daughter.

However, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Clarence Thomas wrote separate opinions on the case, stating that requiring teachers to lead the Pledge was constitutional.

In 2010, two federal appeals courts ruled in a similar challenge that “the Pledge of Allegiance does not violate the Establishment Clause because Congress’ ostensible and predominant purpose was to inspire patriotism” and “both the choice to engage in the recitation of the Pledge and the choice not to do so are entirely voluntary.” 

Dropping the “Bellamy Salute”

The Bellamy Salute in US classroom - 1930. Wikimedia Commons

When Francis Bellamy first wrote the Pledge in 1892, he and his editor at the Youth's Companion magazine Daniel Sharp Ford agreed that its recitation should be accompanied by a non-military style hand salute. Ironically, the hand salute designed by Bellamy bore a striking similarity to what nearly 50 years later would become recognized as the extended hand “Nazi salute.”

The so-called “Bellamy Salute” was used by schoolchildren across the nation when reciting the Pledge until the onset of World War II in 1939 when German and Italian fascists began using virtually the same salute as a sign of loyalty to Nazi dictators Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

Concerned that Bellamy’s salute could be confused for the hated “Heil Hitler!” salute and could be used to the Nazi’s advantage in war propaganda, Congress took action to eliminate it. On December 22, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a law specifying that the Pledge should “be rendered by standing with the right hand over the heart,” as it is today.

Pledge of Allegiance Timeline

September 18, 1892: Francis Bellamy’s pledge is published in “The Youth's Companion” magazine to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America.

October 12, 1892: The pledge is first recited in American schools.  

1923: The original wording “my Flag” is replaced by “the flag of the United States of America.”

1942: The pledge is officially recognized by the U.S. government.

1943: The U.S. Supreme Court rules that requiring a person to say the pledge is a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. 

June 14, 1954: At the request of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Congress adds “under God” to the pledge.

1998: Atheist Michael Newdow files suit against the school board of Broward County, Florida to get the phrase "under God" removed from the pledge. The suit is dismissed.

2000: Newdow files a lawsuit against Elk Grove Unified School District in California arguing that forcing students to listen to the words "under God” is a violation of the First Amendment. The case reaches the Supreme Court in 2004, where it is dismissed.

2005: Joined by parents in the Sacramento, California, area, Newdow files a new lawsuit seeking to have the phrase "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. In 2010, the 9th Circuit US Court of Appeals denies Newdow’s appeal finding that the pledge does not represent a government endorsement of religion, as prohibited by the Constitution.

May 9, 2014: The Massachusetts Supreme Court rules that because reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is a patriotic, rather than a religious, exercise, saying the words “under God” does not discriminate against atheists.

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Longley, Robert. "A Brief History of the Pledge of Allegiance." ThoughtCo, Jul. 13, 2022, thoughtco.com/pledge-of-allegiance-brief-history-3320198. Longley, Robert. (2022, July 13). A Brief History of the Pledge of Allegiance. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/pledge-of-allegiance-brief-history-3320198 Longley, Robert. "A Brief History of the Pledge of Allegiance." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/pledge-of-allegiance-brief-history-3320198 (accessed June 3, 2023).