Why Americans Once Gave the 'Bellamy Salute'

The Bellamy Salute in US classroom
Wikimedia Commons

The American school children in the picture are showing their loyalty to our flag and country by giving the “Bellamy Salute” while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Despite how it might look, the Bellamy Salute had nothing to do with Nazi dictator Adolph Hitler, but it did cause quite stir many years ago.

In fact, the Bellamy Salute is an interesting aside on the history of the Pledge of Allegiance itself.

Who Was “Bellamy?”

Francis J. Bellamy actually wrote the original Pledge of Allegiance at the request of Daniel Sharp Ford, owner of a popular Boston-based magazine of the day named the Youth’s Companion.

In 1892, Ford began a campaign to place American flags in every classroom in the nation. Ford believed that with the Civil War (1861-1865) still so fresh in the memories of so many Americans, a great public show of patriotism would help stabilize a still fragile nation.

Along with the flags, Sharp assigned Bellamy, one of his staff writers at the time, to create a short phrase to be recited to honor the flag and all it stood for. Bellamy’s work, the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, was published in the Youth’s Companion, and immediately struck a chord with Americans.

The first organized use of the Pledge of Allegiance came on Oct. 12, 1892, when some 12 million American school children recited it to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of the voyage of Christopher Columbus.

In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school administrators or teachers could not force students to recite the Pledge.

How it Became Bellamy’s Salute

Bellamy and Sharp also felt a physical, non-military style salute should be given to the flag as the Pledge was recited.

When the instructions for the salute were printed in the Youth’s Companion under his name, the gesture became known as the Bellamy Salute.

Performed as described in Bellamy’s instructions published in The Youth’s Companion, the Bellamy salute was first demonstrated on October 12, 1892, in honor of the National School Celebration of Columbus Day.

At a signal from the Principal the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the flag the military salute – right hand lifted, palm downward, to align with the forehead and close to it. Standing thus, all repeat together, slowly, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.” At the words, “to my Flag,” the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.

And That Was Fine… Until

Americans had no problem with the Bellamy Salute and rendered it proudly until the days before World War II, when Italians and Germans began showing loyalty to dictators Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler with the disturbingly similar “Heil Hitler!” salute.

Americans giving the Bellamy Salute began to fear that they might be mistaken as showing allegiance to the growingly powerful European fascist and Nazi regimes. In his book “To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance,” author Richard J. Ellis wrote, “the similarities in the salute had begun to attract comment as early as the mid-1930s.”

Fears also began to grow that the editors of European newspapers and films could easily crop the American flag from pictures of Americans giving the Bellamy Salute, thus giving Europeans the false impression that Americans were beginning to support Hitler and Mussolini.

As Ellis wrote in his book, “the embarrassing resemblance between the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute and the salute that accompanied the Pledge of Allegiance,” stirred fears among many Americans that the Bellamy Salute could be used overseas for pro-fascist propaganda purposes.

So Congress Ditched It

On June 22, 1942, at the urging of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Congress passed the first law establishing the procedure to be used by civilians when pledging allegiance to the flag. This law failed to take into account the controversy over the use of the Bellamy salute, stating that the Pledge was to “be rendered by standing with the right hand over the heart; extending the right hand, palm upward, toward the flag at the words 'to the flag' and holding this position until the end, when the hand drops to the side.”

Exactly six months later, on December 22, 1942, Congress forever eliminated the use of the Bellamy salute, when it passed a law stating that that the Pledge should “be rendered by standing with the right hand over the heart,” as it is today.

Other Changes to the Pledge

Besides the demise of the Bellamy Salute in 1942, the exact wording of the Pledge of Allegiance has been changed over the years.

For example, the phrase “I pledge allegiance to the flag,” was original written by Bellamy as “I pledge allegiance to my flag.” The “my” was dropped out of concerns that immigrants to the United States, even those who had completed the naturalization process, might be seen as pledging allegiance to the flag of their home nation.

The Supreme Court also ruled on saluting the flag in 1943 in the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.

The biggest and by far most controversial change came in 1954, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower drove a move to add the words “under God” after “one nation.”

“In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource in peace and war,” declared Eisenhower at the time.

In June 2002, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco declared the entire Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional because of its inclusion of the phrase “under God.” The court held that the phrase violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of separation of church and state.

However, the next day, 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alfred Goodwin, issued a stay that prevented enforcement of the ruling.

So while its wording may change again, you can bet the Bellamy Salute will have no place in the future of the Pledge of Allegiance.